Monday, 6 December 2010

Policy-based evidence - Government proposes to remove scientists from drugs advisory committee

Government's relationship with the scientific community has been strained for some time; whether over the provision of empty sugar pills on the NHS, the future of research funding or the proper place of evidence in formulating government policy on drugs.

There is particular concern amongst scientists that scientific evidence is wheeled out in defence of a political viewpoint when it is deemed convenient, and ditched in favour of dogma, expedience and ideology when it isn't. The sacking of Prof. David Nutt as Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs encapsulated the breakdown of trust between government and the scientific advisers it appoints - and it appears the Coalition government is prepared to travel further down the route of downgrading scientific advice when it comes to formulating drugs policy.

News reaches us via Imran Khan, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), and via The Guardian, that buried in the new Police Reform Bill is an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 - which established the ACMD and its terms of reference - that removes the obligation for the Council's members to be chosen from specified professions.

Furthermore, the Bill as drafted gives the Home Secretary powers to institute temporary bans on substances that he/she feels are worthy of banning - no matter what the scientific evidence may suggest - much like the fiasco over Mephedrone that unfolded nearly a year ago.

Far from placing scientific evidence at the heart of government policy-making, the Coalition appears prepared to discard the experts it has hitherto relied upon - at least rhetorically - for advice on harm reduction with respect to drugs. The implications for other areas of policy in which scientific evidence ought to play a big role - policy on climate change and public health for instance - are disconcerting to say the least; marginalising scientific considerations when forming policy is simply unacceptable.

Whereas previously the government appeared on occasion to set policy according to the whims of tabloid editors and pressure groups in defiance of scientific advice, they will no longer have to - defy the advice, that is. In relegating the status of scientific advice in setting policy, the government will be free from the constraints of evidence and science as it decides what to ban and what to permit.

Before the reader thinks I'm some sort of evidence-fundamentalist, let's get one thing clear. Often the evidence may be politically unpalatable, tough to sell to the electorate and/or counter-intuitive. On occasion, policy has to take into consideration more than 'bald statistics;' there may be economic, ethical or moral considerations to be made when setting policy, which is unavoidably a political (if not necessary a party-political) exercise.

But that doesn't mean that scientific evidence for or against a political position can justifiably be rejected or ignored. It doesn't mean that the Home Secretary should be able to convene a panel of advisers devoid of those who understand harm reduction and best practice. And most of all, it doesn't mean that these proposals are welcome - it falls to those of us who believe in placing evidence and the heart of policy to lobby, cajole and convince Westminster that removing the scientific basis for policy is just not on.


Zeno said...

In keeping with Cameron's policy of getting McDonalds, KFC, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo in to advise on obesity policy, the Government will now be getting a few drug barons in to advise on drug policy. They are entrepreneurs and businessmen after all, aren't they?

It all makes sense.

David said...

Instead of removing scientists from committees, why not remove Ministers and Permanent Secretaries who cannot pass an examination in their fitness to govern in the technological 21st century?