Monday, 2 November 2009

Alan Johnson was right to sack Prof Nutt

It is a long time since I have seen Alan Johnson so angry as he was with Adam Boulton on Sky News this morning, defending his decision to sack Professor David Nutt from his position as chief drugs adviser. But he was absolutely right to do so. Professor Nutt seems surprised that the Home Secretary should take exception to his adviser publicly slagging off the government, and breezily declaring ecstasy to be less problematic than horseriding. Such spurious comparisons may have some statistical merit - for example, in preparing a new edition of Freakonomics - but they do little to advertise the seriousness of someone charged with providing advice on a subject of huge concern to millions of families across Britain.

Johnson, as the elected politician, is charged with making decisions, drawing on scientific advice but also on society's expectations. It is a calculation that seems wholly to have eluded Prof Nutt. Look by contrast at the excellent chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson, to see someone who has an understanding of the real world as well as huge skills in his specialist field. That Prof Nutt seemed so unfamiliar with that world in which a Home Secretary or Prime Minister has to operate may qualify him for a place in the ivory towers of academia. But it made him ill-suited to being a government adviser.

MONDAY 1.30pm UPDATE: Those who are defending Prof Nutt seem to suffer from two delusions. The first is that the Professor was prevented from giving advice based on his view of the evidence in public. He was not. He was sacked for actively campaigning against government policy. The second is that his view of the dangers of cannabis and ecstasy is a scientific truth, accepted by the entire scientific community. In that light, the work of Prof Robin Murray, which has shown the harmful impact of continued cannabis use on people's mental health is particularly illuminating. Indeed, if Prof Murray who also gave a fascinating and worrying interview on the World at One today is right, it would seem that some of the advice given on this subject by this 'expert' committee was not only wrong, but dangerously so.

This post has been picked up by John Rentoul and Hopi Sen.


Aremay said...

You've got it wrong. The Home Secretary's tone in his letter to Nutt was so flippant towards the hard science that it makes one gag.

Surely, if the science is telling you to do something, you do it? Science is based on more than the supposition of 'public opinion', it is based on experimentally tried and tested methodologies and systemic research. Clearly, Professor Nutt felt that the government was ignoring this because it did not wish to challenge public misperceptions.

I think this shows a staggering lack of guts on behalf of the government, and a disgusting disregard for science. Alan Johnson should be summarily out of the cabinet for such thuggish behaviour.

SherbetHead said...

I didn't realise Prof. Nutt was a politician.

We need highly politicized science to ensure the Government's very successful drug policies for the last 12 years continue to reap rewards.

If Nutt isn't providing the right message then shoot the messenger.

Glen Thomas said...

You compare Nutt unfavourably to Liam Donaldson, but they are not just 'government advisors' in the same mold.

The Chief Medical Officer is a paid Civil Service postholder and employee of the government, and he has contractual duties to support the government of the day.

Nutt was the chairman of a statutary independent committee, was not paid for his part time duties and is a professional in the field of public health.

He is NOT a civil servant and NOT beholden to gov't policy, and he is quite entitled to serve on the committee and speak his mind publicly.

Conor Ryan said...

I have no argument with Prof Nutt expressing his opinion. But as Alan Johnson has said, there is a big difference between that and actively campaigning against or seeking to ridicule government policy. If he felt that the policy was so antipathetic to what he believed, he should have resigned.

Judith said...

Aremay, science doesn't tell anyone what to do. Science is an excellent basis for decisions about the material world but less so for deciding issues within society; people don't act according to natural laws or pure rationality, however much we might want them to. Society has values, within which scientific inquiry operates; this doesn't mean that science is value laden but that it is treated as a generally reliable guide for action but one of many.

Paul Hutton said...

I don't accept that peer-reviewed editorials and lectures count as campaigning. That is what scientists do. The implication of your argument is that scientists should stop being candid about the evidence once they start being advisors. Very well, but don't then expect to recruit the real experts and forget about evidence-based policy.

Unknown said...

i agree wholeheartedly with paul huttons comment. As a scientific academic it was professor nutt's job to present his findings in both lecture form and in peer reviewed academic journals. the fact that he was a voluntary government advisor should not prevent him from doing his ACTUAL job. Additionally the paper he wrote that was apparently in opposition to stated government policy was published 1 month before the government stated that policy. The so called campaign by proffessor nutt consisted of this journal article and one lecture, both of which the home office was informed about. There are glaring inconsistencies between the evidence of what was published and by who and what the home office is saying Alan johnston has been confronted about this and repeatedly gave either misleading or downright untrue statements about what occured. It is alan johnston who should be sacked!