Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Letter dated 9 March 2009 from Professor John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser to the Rt Hon Jacqui Smith MP, Secretary of State for the Home Office


  Thank you for your letter of 30 January. Since then you have received the ACMD's advice on ecstasy and announced your decisions on classification. You have also criticised, in Parliament, Professor Nutt's article (not written in his ACMD capacity) in the Journal of Psychopharmacology comparing the harms of horse riding with those of taking ecstasy, and he has issued a statement apologising to those offended by the article.

This case illustrates the difficulties which can arise when scientific advice is given in an area of political sensitivity. I do not offer pat solutions, but would like to work with you and your officials in finding a better way forward to ensure that scientific evidence continues to contribute to debates even when such debates are politically sensitive.

There are two points I would like to make at this stage. First, the importance of creating and sustaining an environment in which the best brains of academe are willing and able to work effectively with Government to address the wide range of issues where science and research can point the way forward based on evidence. The Council for Science and Technology (CST), which I co-chair with Professor Dame Janet Finch, launched a report last week on how government and academia can work together, and I enclose a copy. John Denham has committed to working across Government to implement the report's findings. In that context there is a real risk that the events surrounding Professor Nutt's article, and some of the following sensationalist presentation in the media, will discourage scientists from working with Government. That would be unfortunate and damaging to Government.

  In taking forward the CST report, I therefore think we, across government, need to develop some clear expectations. For example, that scientists who give of their time and expertise to assist policy-making, often without charge, are appropriately and publicly supported and valued by Government, by universities and by the research assessment process. This value may have implications for funding, but must also be reflected in esteem. In addition, scientists, especially those working in politically sensitive areas, should recognise the sensitivity of their position, without compromising their professional freedom to publish the results of their research and comment appropriately on it.

  The second point, related to the first, is the handling of the review you are commissioning of how the ACMD works. Given the sensitivity of the ACMD in the process of science advice to Government, it is essential that it continues to follow the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees as a minimum. I would welcome the opportunity for my officials, who are responsible for the Code, to be involved in the review, and would be happy myself to discuss its recommendations with you before any decisions are taken.

  I am copying this letter to John Denham, Gus O'Donnell, David Normington and Paul Wiles.

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