Getting involved in science policy is a tricky business. For the most part, a statement made by a scientific expert is taken as more authoritative than a statement by a government minister, even when the expert strays away from talking about data and evidence and probabilities – the input into a policy decision – and starts talking about translating those data into action – the decision itself. I don’t think scientists shouldn’t suggest courses of action, but they shouldn’t do it in a unilateral way. It’s the difference between ‘studies show x, and y appears to be a promising approach to dealing with this’ (ok) and ‘studies show x, so we must do y’ (not so ok). A fine distinction, perhaps, but one worth trying to make as hard as possible.
Of course, in the case of David Nutt’s forced resignation from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD – see also here and here), it appears to be more a case of ‘studies show x, it would be sensible to do y, but government has not only done z, which is silly/unworkable, but claims its policy is evidence-based.’ Untangle that, if you dare.
It’s obvious that scientific evidence is just one of the things that ministers take into account when making policy decisions. When it comes to drug regulation, for example, beyond issues of harm there are questions of social impact on particularly at-risk groups, and (when it comes to alcohol and tobacco) long-standing societal mores, which also have to be considered when formulating policy, and perhaps might justify going against the recommendations of a body like the ACMD. As a scientist, I have no problem with that – as long as the decision to go against such advice is justified in those terms. Where it does become a problem is when, for whatever reason, a recommendation based on the best available science is ignored, yet the government continues to assert that it is following an ‘evidence-based’ policy, rather than acknowledging that its decisions are clearly being driven by other concerns.
It is this lack of transparency that worries me; and a scientist who actually faces the paradox of being consulted by the government to provide a veneer of scientific authority, whilst having their actual opinion on the issue at hand ignored, is perhaps justified in getting a little annoyed .
I once described Tony Blair’s attitude to science thusly:
…he does not seem to want a electorate that is truly scientifically literate, but one that will accept scientific authorities as expert witnesses in support of government policy.
It seems that this attitude is still prevalent amongst politicians here in the UK; and if David Nutt did sail over (or very close to) the line between advice and outright advocacy, I think it’s at least partly because we have a government which refuses to discuss complex and controversial issues in a grown-up manner.