Lord Drayson, the science minister, has had a frantic time since returning to London on Tuesday from a motor racing trip to Japan. He has had to placate an army of angry scientists protesting against the threat to the independence and academic freedom of expert advisers, following the sacking of Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs a week ago.
Late this afternoon Drayson – one of nature’s optimists – told me he saw a positive way forward. “There’s a real opportunity for good to come out of this row,” he said.
The basis for hope, he said, is the “Statement of Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice”, published by 27 of Britain’s most senior scientists earlier today.
The statement makes three points. Firstly, advising government should not reduce a scientist’s academic freedom to communicate publicly. Secondly, independent committees must be protected from political interference in their work. And lastly, committees’ reports should be published – and when the advice is rejected for reasons that go beyond the scientific evidence, the reasons should be described explicitly and publicly.
Drayson called the one-page statement “a helpful starting point”. Between now and Christmas he would be working with John Beddington, government chief scientist, and the scientists who drafted the statement to produce new guidelines for independent advice. These might include additional material from the government’s existing code of practice.
Although much of the statement reflects existing practice, there is one point that would require a change in Whitehall machinery. At present advisory committees have to work through their parent department’s press office when they release a report or want to contact the media – which might introduce political factors into their presentation.
The statement, reflecting a recent recommendation by the House of Commons science committee, says advisory groups should use an independent press office. Drayson agreed: “I think it would be a good idea if advisory committees had access to a body like the Science Media Centre.”