When James Purnell resigned earlier this year and Gordon Brown faced the threat being ousted as Prime Minister, Ladbrokes had Alan Johnson as the favourite to take over. Now Johnson seems to be faced with his own walkout saga involving a government advisory body: the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
Following the controversial sacking of ACMD Chairman Prof David Nutt, two of his colleagues on the council have resigned and the threat of more members of the Council following looms. In particular the resignation of the only pharmacist representative, Miriam Walker, poses a problem: without Walker the ACMD cannot function since the absence of a pharmacist representative contravenes its statutory requirements. Unfortunately for Johnson the fact that the ACMD is currently in limbo leaves the government powerless to amend or develop drugs policy.
In July Prof Nutt gave a lecture at Kings College London in which he discussed the relative harm of both illegal and legal drugs. He expressed his view that government classification of drugs should be proportional to their relative harm on the grounds that doing otherwise would be misleading to the public and make it harder to avoid injustices. Home Secretary Alan Johnson deemed the comments to be inappropriate given Nutt’s role as Chairman of the ACMD, after all according to Nutt’s findings several drugs were incorrectly classified. Johnson told Sky News “You cannot have a chief government adviser at the same time stepping into the political field and campaigning against government decisions. You can do one or the other: you can’t do both.”
Several of Johnson’s statements seem to make it pretty clear that Prof Nutt’s conduct was inappropriate for someone in his position. Yet if we look at the government’s own “Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees” it seems far from clear that Prof Nutt did actually break any rules. The Code states: “Rules of conduct need not affect a member’s freedom to represent his or her field of expertise in a personal capacity.” The rule is perhaps unsurprising given the nature of the work that scientific advisers do. As Chairman of the ACMD Prof Nutt was unpaid and, naturally, held many academic positions requiring him to discuss his and review the work that he does.
In terms of his conduct, then, it seems that the key issue for the government becomes that of whether or not Nutt was speaking in a “personal” capacity. The Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Richard Garside, shed some light on this issue in a letter he wrote to the Home Secretary. “Professor Nutt gave his lecture, and agreed to its subsequent publication, in his capacity as the Edmond J Safra Chair of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. This is stated clearly in the original publicity and in the subsequent paper. Professor Nutt made some references to the ACMD in his paper as it was relevant to his argument. At no point did he make reference to his role as chair of the ACMD, nor did he give the impression that he was speaking on behalf of the ACMD.”
An important part of being a scientist is having the right to discuss findings in public. It seems that controversy only creeps in when scientific advisers make public their views on how their science should shape policy. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of that particular debate it seems that Nutt has acted in accordance with the government’s own advice. As a consequence he deserves to stay. If Johnson has an objection to this then he must surely seek to clarify the government’s Code of Practice or, better still, follow Nutt’s own advice in creating an independent organisation to replace the Council.