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when should science dictate politics?

By Jon Agar, on 2 November 2009

Two frontpage headline stories in today’s Guardian catch the eye. The bigger headline is ‘Drug experts in mass revolt over sacking’. The smaller one is ‘World leaders accused of myopia over climate deal’

Both report controversies over the proper relationship of scientific evidence to political action. In the first story, two experts have resigned from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs following the sacking from the same body of Professor David Nutt by the home secretary, Alan Johnson. Nutt was angered by the fact that decisions on the classification of drugs did not follow the evidence of harm presented by the Advisory Council. When Nutt publicly quarrelled with the decisions he was asked to go.  “You cannot have a chief adviser at the same time stepping into the public field and campaigning against government decisions”, said Johnson, “You can do one or the other, but not both”.

In the second story, Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which collates and channels scientific advise on global warming, accused politicians of “political myopia”: “I gave all the world’s leaders a very grim view of what the science tells us and that is what should be motivating us all, but I’m afraid I don’t see to much evidence of that at the current stage”.

Why do I feel Nutt is wrong and Pachauri is right, when both complain that politicians are not following a clearly expressed scientific consensus?

In the drugs case, there is a clear distinction between science and politics. I think it is absolutely right that the advisers present their scientific findings and then the home secretary can take a decision on classification that is contrary. The decision is a political one. It would help if the definitions of what the classifications (class A, class B etc) are were clearly political rather than partly physiological, but that is another matter. I don’t believe that the scientific consensus has not been fairly considered, it’s just that the political factors (for example not upsetting the editor of the Daily Mail by appearing to be soft on drugs) are more important. However, Johnson is in the wrong to complain that independent academic scientists, especially those who are privileged to be able to offer direct advice, should not also speak publicly. His reaction was a hot-headed misfire – a worrying one from a politician I had previously identified as future prime minister material. I wouldn’t like to see such decisions made in the heat of anger if the question was whether to declare war or not… 

In the global warming case, I don’t think that many of the world’s politicians are fairly considering the scientific consensus. Therefore, in this critical period in the run up to Copenhagen, Pachauri is entirely justified in speaking out.

One Response to “when should science dictate politics?”

  • 1
    alice wrote on 2 November 2009:

    Having just got my undergrads to track science stories in today’s newspapers …

    Did you read the Peter Preston comment piece inside the Guardian, that (loosly) links those two points on expertise?

    Also, today’s Daily Mail coverage backs up your point about their coverage being on of the ‘political factors’, but made for an interesting contrast to the pleas to “evidence-led” policy I’ve seen elsewhere. E.g. from the editorial: “Scientists on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs are up in arms […] They shoudl remember that Professor Nutt – while free to speak his mind – does not have to face voteors which his deeply contentious views […] How quickly the Home Secretary would have been out of a job if he had shown similar disregard for public opinion”.

    The Mail’s cries to public opinon mightyl only be applied when it suits editorial policy, but this whole business has got me thinking that there’s some seriously PUS-y decent from the post-BSE ‘new mood for dialogue’ of the early Labour years. And I wonder if the new(ish) politics of Climate Change has something to do with this.