New duty on scientists to be trusted by politicians is unacceptable

Responding to the publication of the Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice by the Government, Dr Evan Harris MP, Liberal Democrat Science spokesman and a leading voice in the campaign to protect independent science advice, said:

“This document imposes a brand new and nebulous requirement on scientific advisers to “maintain the trust” of politicians, and they can sanctioned on this alone regardless of whether they have abided by their pre-existing detailed Code of Practice. This will be unacceptable to those in the science community who recognise the need to protect scientific advisers from the fickle whims of political prejudice.”

“The imposition of these principles by the Government is worse than the previous situation, where the Code of Practice governed the activities of advisers. Under these new principles another incident like the sacking of Professor David Nutt by the Home Secretary, which was criticised at the time by the Science Minister, will be entirely within the Government’s new rules.”

“The Science community must resist these principles and should refuse to serve under them.”

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  • The Government’s Principles can be found here: http://nds.coi.gov.uk/content/Detail.aspx?ReleaseID=412586&NewsAreaID=2
  • The Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice were originally submitted to the Government by the President of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, in response to the breakdown in trust between the science community and the Government, following the sacking of the Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt. They can be found here: http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/scienceadvice/
  • Dr Harris’ detailed criticisms of the Government’s proposals can be found below:
  • 1) Reference to academic freedom

    “Government should respect and value the academic freedom…. of its independent scientific advisers”

    While this is included, it is weaker than the original “The Government should protect or safeguard academic freedom”.

    2) The Government document includes the principle that;

    “Government and it scientific advisers should not act to undermine mutual trust”.

    Breach of this will be grounds for sanction and the document makes very clear that this is independent any breach of Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC) (“Applying the principles: The matter will be examined against a clear set of criteria, which include a breach of the Principles or CoPSAC.”)

    The problems are that

    a) Trust by a minister in an adviser is a subjective, and inherently un-measurable, matter. This means Independent Scientific Advisers (ISAs) are immediately under pressure to be in favour with the minister otherwise they face sanction under the “trust” provisions.

    b) There is no point in having an extensive Code of Practice agreed after consultation with ISAs if that is usurped by a new nebulous injunction, not to lose the trust of a politician. This essentially places the fate of the adviser in the hands of the media or political advisers to a minister.

    3) There is a brand new principle

    “Chairs of Scientific Advisory Committees and Councils have a particular responsibility to maintain open lines of communication with their sponsor department and its Ministers”.

    · The duties of Chairs of Scientific Advisory Committees (SACs) are set out clearly in CoPSAC. This is not among them. So this represents a brand new revision to CoPSAC which has not been the subject of consultation.

    · It is again nebulous, undefined and impossible to measure and will allow Chairs of SACs to be sanctioned without knowing that they are doing anything wrong.

    · The spirit of the Phillips Report is that Chairs of SACs must be especially free from political pressure and be able to “speak truth to power”.

    · This is a principle which applies exclusively to advisers even though the Principles was envisaged as a document that would apply to Government, and be a reciprocation of CoPSAC.

    4) The section “Applying the Principles” includes

    “Government departments and their independent scientific advisers should raise issues of concern over the application of the Principles, or other guidance, with the relevant departmental Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA). If the matter of concern cannot be effectively resolved or is especially serious CSAs should approach the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) and Ministers should approach the GCSA and the Minister for Science.”

    So ISAs themselves can not approach the GCSA even if they are complaining about the CSA.

    5) The section “Applying the Principles” includes

    “the matter will be examined against a clear set of criteria, which include a breach of the Principles or CoPSAC”.

    This makes clear that sanctions can be applied for an alleged breach of the principles even when there has been no breach of the Code of Practice. There is little point of having a Code of Practice if it is not exhaustive. The Principles – in the matter of not acting to undermine trust – are not a clear set of criteria, nor is the requirement on Chairs to maintain open lines of communication with Government.

    6) The Government appears to have reneged on their promise to enshrine the ministerial duties and responsibilities within these Principles into the Ministerial Code.

    This was a recommendation of the Science and Technology Select Committee, appeared to have been accepted by the Government but is not mentioned in the Principles or the accompanying description

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    12 Responses to “New duty on scientists to be trusted by politicians is unacceptable”

    1. Andy Bellenie Says:

      This is outrageous – why won’t the government realise that science is their FRIEND, not an enemy that needs to be strictly controlled. They seem to have this strange misunderstanding about what science is, and what it can be achieve, especially when it comes to complex moral issues. They don’t understand that science can inform ALL decisions, in fact the scientific method is the only way of reliably getting information about anything.

      Cannabis reclassification was such a classic example. They asked whether it would a) reduce harm and b) act as a deterrent. The science was done, and the answer was ‘no’ in both cases. So they claim that the MORAL position is more important, and that the science in this case is irrelevant. Of course, had they asked the right question of the scientists, they would have got a better answer – in this case ‘What classification on cannabis will most support the Government’s ‘tough on drugs’ stance.” They simply don’t care about ‘harms’ or ‘deterrents’ but in the process they managed to make science look like the enemy.

      When they say a question is beyond the realm of science, what they are actually saying is – we didn’t ask the right question in the first place.

    2. Michael Power Says:

      These principles for the treatment of independent advice are just what a government needs if it wants to pay lip service to the principle of evidence-based policy.

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    4. sdasd Says:

      In canada, it is even worst. Canadian climate researchers are being “muzzled” by draconian policies of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Government of Canada has cut virtually all programs aimed at funding climate science. I get the sense that they feel that science is a nuisance. They ignore science in their decision making; they muzzle their federal scientists by imposing impossible media-contact regulations; they cut programs designed to allow scientists to develop knowledge.

    5. David Raynes Says:

      Evan Harris is flogging a dead horse. Any sensible analysis of the behaviour of David Nutt shows that he had his own agenda and interests. He allowed that agenda to interfere with his duties as Chairman of the ACMD.

      Nothing wrong with him having his own agenda, his own business interests and his own views on where drug policy should go but if his own views and activities conflicted, as they certainly did, with his ACMD role, he should have resigned before he had to be pushed. So should any scientist engaged in this or similar work for government. Otherwise trust cannot be maintained.

    6. John R Says:

      Climate science?That would be a very good idea.When will we see some? So is this trust issue a means to avoid unsupported claims ,which panic the credulous or to head off the public exposure of the weak science on which public policy rests?Climate change ? What is climate stasis? I support cutting govt funding to canadian climate scientists,now their ineptitude or complicity is obvious. The errors exposed in the great consensus of late are interesting.But the failure of our govt funded experts to point these errors out is even more curious.Did any of our scientific watchdogs do their jobs?Why did it fall to a retired geologist to check the math?Would anyone still call Phil Jones credible?or a scientist?Classic case of tax dollar advocacy.

    7. Hildegard Says:

      David Raynes – Say whut?!
      Show your workings. How in the name of two communicating hemispheres did you get to that position? What agenda? What business interests? What conflict? Don’t just ape Johnson & throw slurs about – give us your evidence for those statements.

      The ACMD never was supposed to be a bunch of biddable hacks willing to rubberstamp whatever daft wheeze the latest bunch of politicians dreamed up. That’s not their role, nor ought it to be. One of their most important contributions was to be an evidence-based counterweight to knowitall career politicians easily swayed by moral panics & the desire to look tough.

      Politicians’ ability to “trust” science to come up with results they like is such a misconception of what trustworthy scientific advice should be that I sincerely hope you never have any decision-making power beyond what kind of cream cakes you’d like for tea.

      Drugs policy is fraught with uncomfortable truths, sticking your fingers in your ears & sing lalala won’t make them untrue, nor will shooting the messenger. This government’s pitiful interest in “sending a message” is entirely self-defeating. I’ve worked in drugs counselling, outreach & detox & once politicians start telling porkies in order to obtain some fanciful moral highground, all they do is sabotage efforts to reduce the prevalence of problem drug use or to minimise harms.

      Once you lie to people in the small things, they are quick to assume you are lying to them about everything. Misleading people via the criminal justice system only makes it infinitely harder for people like me to be believed when saying things that really are true like, “Crystal meth’s seriously nasty stuff & you can get into a hella mess far quicker than you’d think. Best to stay away.” or, “Yes, you can get addicted to smack even if you just smoke it.” Hell, keep on with policies like this & we might as well go feed the AIDs denialists five pound notes.

      Trust is the only thing we have to counterbalance the seductive canards of drugs use. Once drugs workers, doctors, etc are tainted by this posturing political deception, then their advice is no more credible to users & potential users than advice from dealers & other users. But hey, what’s efficacy when set against the opportunity to strike a pose?

    8. Michael Says:

      Hildegard: *applause*. That was one of the best take-downs of an absurd unsubstantiated anecdote I’ve seen in a while.

    9. David Raynes Says:

      Hildegard (& Michael)
      Nutt tinkering with legalisation is available on the web in his New Zealand Radio broadcast. (presumably you know how to use search tools?).

      Nutt’s proposals and his wish to manufacture a chemical replacement for alcohol, is a matter of public record, he does not hide that intent. Again, use a search engine.

      Nutt’s substantial personal wealth in a large share holiding in at least one major pharmaceutical company, has also been a matter of pubic record along with his declaration of his links with various other pharmaceutical companies. This certainly WAS all available recently, I have not rechecked. Quite a substantial holding for a poorly paid academic.

      Nutt’s involvement with legalisation/liberalisation lobby group The Beckley Foundation, is also a matter of long standing public record.

      Not that well known is the odd way Nutt dealt with the Benzo problem when at the ACMD but there has been at least one press report-easily findable.

      The matter of Nutt’s co-operation with Colin Blakemore and others in a integrated scale of harms, including alcohol and tobacco, is again, a matter of public record. Less well known is the fact that this was done by “delphic analysis” not science and that allegedly some of those he consulted failed to reply. It is said some thought his attempts ridiculous.

      Now Professor Nutt makes no secret at all of his ambitions. I have quizzed him publicly on them and heard him speak many times, there was no denial.

      To achieve his objective with an alcohol replacement most sensible people would comprehend that he would need a change in the UK drug control and licensing mechanisms, maybe even the UN conventions.

      Changes that the current government has emphatically told parliament, it does not want.

      Google is your friend, I suggest you learn to use it.

    10. Hildegard Says:

      I suspected you might be *that* David Raynes from your first post & clearly you are. On which basis my rebuttal of your points need amount to no more than – “You have an opinion. That’s nice for you.” Nonetheless, I’ll have a canter round the park with you for form’s sake.

      Here we are, trying to discuss the nature of scientific advice & evidence in relation to specific government policy & you’re suggesting I use, not learned journals, not specialist texts, not even PubMed, but – Google.
      You do realise how risible that is?

      In the matter of your financial innuendos – more slurs – do you propose that only church mice should have opinions on drugs control? As you say, Nutt is open about his interests so your attempt to impugn him with them is clumsy at best. Simply casting aspertions really won’t do & falls under the heading of ad hominem attack.

      Benzodiazepines are used extensively in the management of alcohol withdrawal & it is within this context that Professor Nutt has undertaken his research. Am I missing your point somehow? Other than mudslinging your problem in this matter is quite opaque to me.

      Your personal bugbear about methadone substitution is irrelevant to alcohol substitution. Doesn’t even really apply to methadone as we don’t provide the support & interventions that might improve the efficacy of the prescription. Providing some sort of pharmaceutical substitute for alcohol seems to me a perfectly valid line of enquiry, given the enormous harm that alcohol does & given the prevalence of de facto substitution among alcoholics attempting to manage their own dependency.

      On benzodiazepine abuse itself, I congratulate you on being 20 years late to the party. Perhaps your reading has failed to alert you to the prevalence of benzodiazepine abuse & dependency in the ’60s, ’70s & ’80s, or to the considerable & very effective measures that were taken from the late ’80s onwards to address this issue. (For instance, reduction in prescribing & changing the formulation of the once enormously popular “ruggers” so that they would no longer be injectable.) The last 20 yrs have seen a considerable reduction in benzodiazepine dependecy & to start jumping on the bandwagon now shows a lamentable failure of observation.

      Your own independence is easily questioned – your entire professional career was in interdiction & your involvement with The National Drug Prevention Alliance bespeaks something of an ideological bias. Independence in research cannot be achieved when one begins from an ideological position. One considers the evidence & draws conclusions, one does not form an opinion & then seek research to validate one’s position – we call that “cherry picking”. I recall your memorandum 54 to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, in which you made wide-ranging assertions with scant references (two literatue reviews & a decade-old WHO report) & repeatedly appealled to your own authority. That’s not research, it’s at best opinion, though I’d tend to classify it under “notions”.

      The “scale of harms” is a perfectly reasonable idea, if one wants to address the issue of drug harms with any honesty it is merely realistic to include alcohol, one of the most socially & clinically damaging drugs of abuse. Surely you cannot disagree that people ought to be encouraged to recognise acohol’s well-established risks?

      I’m sorry but any ful knoe, or at least any fule who cares to do the reading, that Nutt used delphic analysis & if you peruse his Lancet article on the subject the reasons for its use are clearly set out. The critics of whom you speak – who are they? At the very least statisticians, I’d hope. What methodology would you have preferred, given the complex variables?

      If you don’t provide references for your assertion it’s on a par with “I met some blokes down the park who didn’t much care for delphic analysis”. For amusement’s sake, I turned to your favourite research tool & found that though you yourself repeat this assertion very widely, you never do say who considered delphic analysis “ridiculous” in this context. Though I did find one person writing to that effect; Caroline Coon, a campaigner for the legalisation of all drugs – what strange company you do keep.

      What is your objection to Nutt’s involvement with the Beckley Foundation? I say again; independent scientific advice. Agreement with your ideological position is not synonymous with independence. Far from it.

      You do seem to have your cart before your horse on policy – successive governments have preferred wasteful & ineffective posturing over practical & effective action. What ministers “want” ought to be based, not on their emotional or ideological attachment to this or that notion, but upon sound evidence. Otherwise it is merely the exercise of personal power in the service of personal sentiment. That’s not the sort of State I recognise as British.

      Google is a limited tool & when used without sufficient ratiocination may serve merely to reinforce confirmation bias.

    11. David Raynes Says:

      Hildegard
      You seem to have difficulty in sticking to the point. Here is what you said about my remarks:

      “How in the name of two communicating hemispheres did you get to that position? What agenda? What business interests? What conflict? Don’t just ape Johnson & throw slurs about – give us your evidence for those statements.”

      Now suggesting you use Google to check out matters that are freely available from original sources is fairly basic. You challenged what I said, I have pointed you at the materiel to justify what I said. An intelligent 10 year old could find it, given the information I have given you.

      My complaint about Evan Harris is that he has publicly and noisly sided with Nutt without checking his facts or properly analysing the factors behind Nutt’s dismissal. Probably just simple, badly executed, political opportunism, but he got it all wrong.

      Evan Harris has also sided with the scientists who resigned in sympathy with Nutt, corralling their wagons against an imaginary enemy.

      I say Evan Harris is deceiving the public with his stridency, just as Nutt did with the accounts he gave of the cannabis debate after his dismissal.

      Nutt knows full well that the classification of cannabis was a marginal call, that the ACMD itself was not unanimous and that equally eminent people (such as the National Director of Mental Health) were for re classification to B.

      Before anyone again defends Nutt without question, they might wish to consider what Les Iversen said about him yesterday, (as reported on Newsnight), an allegation that Nutt had “lost contact with reality” (in terms).

      This is strong stuff among scientists and Iversen claims Nutt to be a friend! Good job he is not an enemy or opponent perhaps.

      Also consider the allegation from Professor Robin Murray about Nutt, “that he had played fast and loose with the statistics” (on cannabis) .

      I have confronted Nutt about his agenda and he stumbles around like a schoolboy caught stealing apples. Importantly, he does not deny anything I allege.

      I have no probem with him having agendas or having strong views-about anything, but as Chairman of the ACMD he surely needed to be properly conscious of the range of views he represented. If as a member he had a problem with the law and the system he was operating I say an honourable person whould have left the ACMD voluntarily and campaigned from outside.

      Nutt is by all accounts a charming man and good company, but a martyr for science he most assuredly is not.

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