Pubdate: Wed, 16 Dec 2009
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd
Author: Mark Henderson, Science Editor
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United Kingdom)
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)


Scientists who advise the Government will be expected to develop a
"shared position" with ministers on controversial topics, under
guidelines issued after the row over the sacking of David Nutt, the
government chief drugs adviser.

While a statement of principles for scientific advisers, published
yesterday, recognises their right to dissent publicly from government
policy, they will also be required to avoid "undermining mutual trust".

The principles were drawn up by Lord Drayson, the Science Minister,
after Alan Johnson's dismissal of Professor Nutt as chairman of the
Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because of his criticism of
classification decisions on cannabis and Ecstasy. Five other members
of the council also resigned in protest.

Lord Drayson also criticised his Cabinet colleague for failing to
consult him before sacking Professor Nutt.

The principles state that advisers can speak freely about their areas
of expertise, even when they disagree with government policy, and that
ministers should not interfere with their work. The guidelines will be
considered in a consultation on science advice that runs until February.

Lord Drayson said: "Ministers rely on scientific advice to develop
sound government policy. The relationship between ministers and
advisers is an important one. These principles are designed to
strengthen that relationship further."

They emphasise the importance of academic freedom, and the
responsibilities of both scientists and ministers."

Science organisations welcomed most of the principles, but expressed
concern over a statement that "the Government and its scientific
advisers should work together to reach a shared position, and neither
should act to undermine mutual trust".

Tracey Brown, of the charity Sense About Science, said this could
create the appearance of collusion between scientists and the
Government and undermine public trust, and that the "mutual trust"
clause could be used as an excuse for sacking advisers who take
unhelpful positions.

"This seems to describe exactly the collusion between ministers and
advisers on animal feed that preceded BSE." she said. "It
re-introduces the ambiguity that we thought we were all seeking to
eliminate through the development of these principles. How will
advisers know whether, in answering a question at a lecture or from a
journalist one morning, they might be undermining mutual trust with
the Government?"

Nick Dusic, the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering,
said: "Lord Drayson has acted swiftly to rebuild confidence in the
Government's scientific advisory system.

"However, the Government's principles on scientific advice do not
explicitly protect scientific advisers from being summarily dismissed
by ministers in the future. This needs to be rectified in the final
version so that scientific advisers can feel safe in discussing the
evidence relevant to controversial policy issues."

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, said: "The
Government's proposals, in their current form, torpedo the principles
by their inclusion of the unjustified, undefined, and unfair
requirements for independent scientific advisers not to act to
'undermine mutual trust' with ministers.

"This means that whenever a minister decides -- perhaps due to a bad
headline -- that they no longer want to trust a particular adviser,
then that adviser can be deemed to have breached one of these
high-level principles and be sacked."

Professor Nutt said he felt vindicated by the principles. "If my
interpretation of these principles is correct, then the public
comments that the Home Secretary sacked me for would now be acceptable
and allowed. I would like the Government to confirm this," he said.

"Trust is a two-way process, not something that can be imposed by
ministerial decree. I hope the Government understands this."
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