Professor David Nutt Interview and Q and A

At the end of my last post about the then-newly-launched Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, I indicated that I planned to attend an interview and question-and-answer session hosted by Imperial College Union Political Philosophy Society. Below I reproduce, with permission (and links!) the text of the report I wrote, which was published in Felix, the student newspaper of Imperial College.

What is the role of scientific advice in government?

It is very easy, when you study at undergraduate level, to imagine that science has got nothing to do with politics, or philosophy, or history

So claimed Dr. Stephen Webster, Director of the Science Communication Group at Imperial College, as he opened Imperial College Union’s Political Philosophy Society’s recent event. The subject of the Interview and Question and Answer session, Professor David Nutt, is “emblematic” of the ease with which disagreements arise at the interface between science and politics.

That the Pippard Lecture Theatre was full to beyond capacity suggests that a proportion of Imperial College’s students are well-aware of at least one current source of friction between scientists and government. In October last year, Professor Nutt was sacked from his position as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) when he gave advice that was at odds with government policy.

Professor Nutt graduated in Medicine from Cambridge University, and subsequently trained as a psychiatrist with an interest in neuropsychopharmacology. A relatively recent arrival at Imperial College, he holds the Edmond J Safra chair in Neuropsychopharmacology here. Such a background made him the ideal candidate for chair of the ACMD, a position he was appointed to in January 2008, having served on the council for a number of years before that.

In common with Dr. Webster, I first because aware of Professor Nutt in February last year when I read his article Equasy – An overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on Drug Harms, which was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. This article compares the risks associated with horse riding with those associated with taking ecstasy, and reaches some surprising conclusions. The article and its subsequent press coverage ruffled the feathers of the then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith who requested that he issue an apology, which he did.

The call for his resignation in October last year was prompted by the publication of a report, Estimating Drug Harms: a risky business, by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College London. The report, itself an edited transcript of a lecture given by Nutt, discusses the many factors influencing legislation about drugs. In the report, the scale published in The Lancet in 2007 was presented. This scale attempts to parametrize and summarize the risks associated with the use of various drugs, both legal and illegal, resulting in a hierarchy at odds with current drug legislation.

Known for being outspoken, perhaps Professor Nutt felt able to be even more frank because since his sacking he can no longer be chastised by the Home Secretary for making his views public whilst holding a government advisory position. At the PPS event, he did not shy away from the challenging questions presented by Dr. Webster and later by the audience. Dr. Webster encouraged this candour, opening by asking him what it felt like to be sacked by the Home Office. Professor Nutt touched on the power of e-mail – he was able to communicate his side of the story within hours of his sacking. Such a rapid response is not possible from a beaurocratic government department.

Professor Nutt spoke about the lack of scientific rigour underlying the ACMD’s decisions at the time that he joined, something that appalled him at the time. However, establishing a system of classification based on relative harms – the above-mentioned Lancet publication – did not win approval from government ministers when classifying drugs according to their harms brought out striking inconsistencies between current drugs legislation surrounding possession and supply.

Questions from the audience covered a wide range of topics. Imperial’s cosmopolitan student community were able to point out the differences in drugs policy in different countries, and to discuss the impact different approaches have on the problems caused by drugs. Professor Nutt clarified misconceptions about drugs and our current understanding of their effects, and carefully pointed out where research was lacking, or difficult to conduct. His passion for evidence-based policy-making was clear.

Following his sacking, Professor Nutt has not retreated from investigating drug harms. In January this year he announced the launch of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD). At the press conference announcing the launch of the new Committee, Professor Nutt outlined its planned remit, to include not just research on drug harms but also their benefits and treatments. Drugs are an emotive issue, and, in establishing the ISCD, Professor Nutt hopes to lead an independent committee once removed from the government, that will eventually be commissioned by the government to conduct research. Whether this comes to pass will probably not become clear until after the general election.

Questions from the floor made it obvious that Professor Nutt was, in this instance, somewhat preaching to the converted. As an advocate of the role of scientific evidence in the formation of government policy facing an audience of science students, he was unlikely to meet many dissidents from a political point of view. And when his published research points out the discrepancy between evidence of harms and current drug classification, and furthermore leads to the recommendation of the downgrading of some drugs, and his audience are students, he is likely to be met with far fewer accusations than he has received from Home Secretaries over the years.

For a lively, upfront and honest discussion of Professor Nutt’s efforts to bring some science to scientific advice, and a demonstration of his refusal to march to a political beat, the evening was informal and entertaining. However, I could not help bur feel that the debate might have been all the richer if there had been a sprinking of Daily Mail readers in the audience. In this vein, if I may take the liberty, on behalf of the PPS I would like to extend an invitation to the Home Secretary to face a similar audience, some of whom might have an interest in a future career in science, or in government, or in both.

With thanks to Dan Wan, Felix editor, for permission to reproduce the text of the article here.

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7 Responses to Professor David Nutt Interview and Q and A

  1. Åsa Karlström says:

    Thanks Erica for posting this. Very nice report and i’m happy to be able to read it here.
    When I read the news last year about Prof Nutt and his resignation I remember thinking that this is a prime example of when a question might be more complex, politics and research (evidence) might not corraborate as well.
    (And especially in regards to sensitive issues that people have opinions about. Not to mention that debating issues that people have strong emotional feelings and thoughts about is always going to demand strong debate leaders/moderators imho.)
    I guess I had high hopes for politicians (and others) to be able to reason with research and the evidence they present instead of simply saying “this is not the correct answer we are looking for” but rather say “we have reached this decision based on X and Y and we stand by it”. I mean, surely decisions can be made despite “research can’t prove this and that” as long as we don’t lie about the arguments on why we want to make a decision based on other things?

  2. Erika Cule says:

    Asa – I’m glad you liked the report. I agree with you that politically sensitive issues (such as drugs policy) should be discussed with reference to more than the scientific evidence alone. I think that is in part why Professor Nutt set up the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs – to make the scientific advice even further removed from government, so that it (the science) could be considered as one aspect of the government’s decision-making without the scientists being obliged to play party politics.
    However, I don’t think that headlines in the tabloid press are going to help his cause!

  3. Lee Turnpenny says:

    Excellent report, Erica. It seems the ACMD-politics relationship is in continued turmoil.

  4. Erika Cule says:

    Indeed. Dr Evan Harris has posted a blog post on the reasoning behind the resignation.
    I was amused by Prof Nutt’s response clarifying his position following the headline in the Evening Standard – I’ll see if I can find a link to the letter but I can’t find it online at the minute.

  5. Lee Turnpenny says:

    And another. Are there any left?

  6. Austin Elliott says:

    One does wonder, Lee.
    I am tempted to paraphrase the famous Oscar Wilde line (from The Importance of Being Earnest):
    bq “To lose one or two Advisory Committee members may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose half the Committee looks like carelessness.”

  7. Austin Elliott says:

    Oops – blockquote fail there

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