The Separation of Science and State

It was a privilege to hear Professor David Nutt speak a few of weeks ago at a talk organised by the Oxford Atheists, Secularists and Humanists. Professor Nutt is a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College, London, and if his name sounds familiar, it is most likely because of a highly public conflict which occurred between him and the previous government. For 10 years Nutt had been the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), an independent body of experts whose role it is to advise the government on issues surrounding potentially harmful drugs.  However, in 2009 Nutt gave a talk at King’s College London, in which he outlined the need for scientific, evidence-based drug policy in which drugs are classified according to their relative harms. He criticised certain actions taken by the British government, such as reclassifying cannabis as Class B from Class C, and opting to maintain ecstasy as a Class A drug, decisions that were explicitly opposed by the ACMD on the basis of scientific evidence regarding the relative harms of the drugs. In his talk Nutt also highlighted the huge costs to individuals and to society of two other drugs, tobacco and alcohol, and suggested that more effort could be focused on  reducing abuse of these more dangerous, legal drugs.

This talk was subsequently published as a pamphlet, which is available here. If you are not convinced that our drug laws need changing, have a read of the pamphlet and I guarantee you will change your mind. It provides an excellent, well-balanced overview of drug policy and its current shortcomings, and makes a coherent argument for reducing drug harm by allowing science more of a say in policy. However, the government felt that they were being undermined by Nutt, and the Home Secretary at the time, Alan Johnson, sacked Nutt with this letter.

Nutt’s firing was, of course, totally unjustified. He had given his talk and published other articles criticising government policy as an academic, not as a government advisor. It would be ridiculous for the government to think that they could censor an academic’s output to fall into line with policy. The silver lining of the whole affair was that it initiated serious public debate about drug policy, a debate that is continuing today.

This will all be old news to many of you, but it was interesting to hear Professor Nutt tell his side of the story at the talk. From the perspective of a science student, what was most thought-provoking – albeit somewhat disheartening – was Nutt’s first-hand account of the conflict between the scientific community and the government. We perhaps forget sometimes that not everyone is as scientifically-minded as we are: this is not necessarily a bad thing, and is surely one of the reasons advisory councils like ACMD exist. But our leaders cannot just pay lip service to these institutions – rather they need to be listened to and their advice taken seriously. Instead, our politicians often seem to dismiss overwhelming scientific data in favour of anecdotal evidence or perceived public opinion.

Professor Nutt came across as the best of scientists – someone passionate about his field of research and eager to see it change the world for the better. While we might not all work in fields as controversial as his, his resolve and enthusiasm should be an example for us all.


Read more from Professor David Nutt at his blog.

Matthew Warren

About Matthew Warren

Matthew is at Balliol College, studying for a DPhil in the Department of Psychiatry, and is a former editor of Bang! magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, @mattbwarren