Sunday, 1 November 2009

Can't have it both ways.

A politics meets academia post. The Chief Advisor on drugs policy - a scientist Prof. Nutt- has been sacked after he openly spoke out about his opinion on drug classification- a statement that contradicted the government's official policy. Alan Johnson, the MP who sacked him said, 'What you cannot have is a chief 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.' And that all sounds fair, doesn't it? The people who work for the government should agree with the government.

Except that the problem is that this means the government can consult you as a scientist, completely ignore your advice, and still put your name as backing to their political policies. And, how do you think that makes you as a scientist look to other scientists? What scientist wants to be associated with whackadoo, ill-informed government policy? What scientist wants his authority as a scientist used to promote something that is unscientific?

I know the acceptable stance in this case, is to have the government consult you, ignore you and then resign in a big huffy fit, but the problem is that most scientists want government policy to be well-informed; they want the work they do to matter and actually help people, and when your resign you lose that opportunity.

The government can't have it both ways. You can use independent, scientific advice that is well-informed to support your policy or your don't, but you can't make a big show of having a chief advisor who is a scientist to give your policy authority, and then ignore him, and expect him to keep his mouth shut.

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