Alan Johnson, the UK home secretary, must have hoped that his sacking of David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs would be a nice quick kill – sending a message that he was as tough on cannabis as his Tory shadow Chris Grayling.
Johnson failed to appreciate the extent of the anger the dismissal would arouse among Britain’s scientists. If he had had the courtesy – and prudence – to consult Lord Drayson (science minister) and John Beddington (government chief scientist) in advance, he would surely have proceeded differently.
The treatment of Nutt goes against everything Drayson and Beddington are trying to achieve in their laudable attempt to introduce independent scientific advice throughout government.
But some good may yet come out of the mess, if it forces government and scientists to come up with an improved system for providing expert advice.
The excellent Commons Science and Technology Committee made two suggestions in a recent report, which would improve the presentation of scientific advice. One is to give advisory groups access to an independent press office that would present their findings – rather than the parent department. The other idea is to require the chief scientist in each department to report on every instance where official expert advice was not followed.