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