Ignoring science in government policy is bad for all of us


9:46 am - April 25th 2010

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contribution by Prateek Buch

In October last year, Professor David Nutt was dismissed as the Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), following remarks he made in a lecture given in his capacity as an academic in the field of neuropsychopharmacology – substance abuse to you and I.

Dismissed is the operative word here – the Home Secretary, whom the ACMD advises regarding the classification of drugs, claimed at the time that in airing criticisms of Government policy in an academic lecture, Prof. Nutt was “stepping into the political field and campaigning against government decisions”.

“You can do one or the other. You can’t do both.”

Advising their government on matters of scientific fact, allowing the formulation of evidence-based policy, ought to be a most sought-after position amongst scientists. It is an honour accorded to those at the very zenith of their field of expertise.

Yet following a breakdown in the relationship between government and the research community the position of Government Advisor represents something of a poisoned chalice.

Many now see the way in which advisory committees are regarded as being symptomatic of the fractured relationship between government and science.

Principles
Professor Nutt’s dismissal brough fury at the ACMD – two members resigned immediately and several more followed – and Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee published a report asking the Government to issue a clear Statement of Principles as to how it would handle scientific advice in the future.

The Government did indeed draft such a statement, and yet Lord Drayson’s Principles fell some way short of what leading scientists, and indeed the Select Committee, had hoped for.

Of greatest concern to many was the inclusion in the draft Principles of statements such as this: “The Government and its scientific advisors should work together to reach a shared position, and neither should act to undermine mutual trust.”

This clause would appear to put consensus ahead of objectivity, not-rocking-the-boat ahead of holding policy-makers to account, cart ahead of horse.

Not to worry, we were told, as the Principles were just a draft, to be consulted upon. Indeed, Lord Drayson indicated in an interview with the journal Nature that some of the more controversial elements wouldn’t be in the much-anticipated final published Principles.

But the finalised principles retain much of what was objected to in the original draft – lines such as “Scientific advisers should recognise that science is only part of the evidence that Government must consider in developing policy” and “Government and its scientific advisers should not act to undermine mutual trust.”

The finalised Principles precipitated yet another high-profile resignation from the ACMD panel, and appear to entrench the view that this government has of scientific advice and its role in evidence-based policy making.

Implications
It’s not just the details in this story that make for disturbing reading – viz the ban on the currently-legal drug mephedrone, likely to be rushed out despite the lack of any concrete evidence as to its harm – it’s the implications for how all public policy will be made in the future that are more worrying.

In an age when scientific data underpins so much public policy – whether regarding genetically modified crops or strategies to combat climate change and everything in between – it is crucial that government receives the best advice on said data before committing the nation to a course of action.

If it continues to undermine scientists and treat their advice as subsidiary to political goals, who will have the confidence to stand up and be counted amongst those who advise the government on anything?

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Reader comments


We’re still blocking the production of genetically modified crops, despite the desperate need to increase yields, on the basis of the prejudices of some very rich NGOs who don’t care how many people starve in this world. There is absolutely no scientific evidence in favour of a ban whatsoever.

Perhaps we could start applying science to that.

“Scientific advisers should recognise that science is only part of the evidence that Government must consider in developing policy”

This is the scary bit. The implication is that Government also has to take into account existing prejudices and vested interests so scientists should not be able to say in public what their research shows if they are at the same time Government advisers. There is at the same time no limit on what vested interests and the prejudiced are allowed to say.

@ 2 – The application of science is socially constructed, even if science itself can claim to be objective truth. To give an example, the increase in risk of lung cancer from “passive smoking” is from 10 in 100,000 to 12 in 100,000, in other words statistically insignificant, and yet the smoking ban was implement largely on the back of this “scientific evidence” reinforced of course by vested political/social/economic interest (and the inability of most people to understand the concept of relative risk). The same logic applies to “climate change”, illegal drugs, “healthy eating” etc etc. Science has always been abused by vested interests.

A good article, and thank you. But I would like to pick out one point:

In October last year, Professor David Nutt was dismissed as the Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), following remarks he made in a lecture given in his capacity as an academic in the field of neuropsychopharmacology – substance abuse to you and I.

Shurely shome mishtake? That would be the study of substance use, not substance abuse. It’s a relatively small thing, but it’s also a symptom of a vast propaganda effort which has been dedicated towards convincing the public that the two concepts are synonymous. They most certainly are not.

5. Nick Cohen is a Tory

I hate to say this but I agree with Matt.
To use any scientific evidence, we must apply a falsification process to all evidence given or used.
Saying that scientific evidence along with political and social considerations can be used to justify legislation.
Also matt I hope you will apply your sceptism for scientific stats, to other stastical analysis. I doubt it, because we all like a good stat now and then to back up- an argument

6. Nick Cohen is a Tory

Also I much prefer Pubs now, my food doesn’t taste like ash and it saves a bundle on dry cleaning.

7. Nick Cohen is a Tory

Also the scientific evidence, cause of respiratory disease, for the clean air acts was a little sketchy and the acts were opposed by buisness and the right wing press. Now, London doesn’t have many pea soupers. So even sketchy evidence can be a force for good.

Matt,

To give an example, the increase in risk of lung cancer from “passive smoking” is from 10 in 100,000 to 12 in 100,000, in other words statistically insignificant, and yet the smoking ban was implement largely on the back of this “scientific evidence”…

An increase from 10 to 12 in 100,000 can easily be statistically significant. Statistical significance comes not from the size of the estimated parameter, but from the estimation method and the number of samples used to perform the estimation.

Maybe what you mean is that the risk is insignificantly bigger, but I’m not sure that’s obvious from those numbers. An increase from 10 to 12 in 100,000, if it were applied to the whole population of the UK would mean 1,200 people affected. And that’s per year because that statistic measures annual risk.

Beyond that, the risk from passive smoking doesn’t just come from lung cancer. I haven’t looked into the details of this too carefully so I don’t want to make too strong a statement, but the wikipedia page cites epidemiological that passive smoking caused 35-40,000 deaths per year in the US in the 80s (and lots of studies that seem to show broadly similar things).

Incidentally, I was marginally opposed to the smoking ban at the time on the basis of individual liberty, but not strongly opposed because the scientific case seemed strong (and even if it didn’t cause a health problem, it made many people’s lives more unpleasant).

I have just ended my tenure at a pub which was non-smoking before the ban. Slightly tedious for me, because I smoke; but a good strategic decision for the business, particularly in Hackney. My new pub would also be non-smoking either way; partly because I will have three good outdoor areas, two of them sufficiently sheltered as to be quite pleasant spaces if nicely appointed, and relatively heatable in winter. However, comma.

What annoyed me about the ban is that it made no allowance for some basic ideas which would have given the independent businessman some options. For example, hookah bars; an exception could easily be made, and if you go to work in one you’re more or less obviously okay with a smoking environment. I opposed the ban when it came in because it was knee-jerk, reactionary legislation rather than an evidentiary and nuanced response to a public health issue.

10. Matt Munro

@ 8 I was’t intending to restart the smoking deabte (again !) but I should point out the increase in risk from 10 to 12 is for a non-smoker *living* ( 24/7, 365) with a smoker. Therefore the effect of a few hours in a pub on a non-smokers in unlikley to be of any significance. It measure the increase in *risk*, not in the number of people afffected, if you compare it to say, the chances of being run over, it *is* insignificant. The problem is the science was manipulated to say “it increses your chance of getting lung cancer by twenty percent” (i.e +2/10 = 20%) which is a mathematical nonsense.

11. Matt Munro

@ 8 “but the wikipedia page cites epidemiological that passive smoking caused 35-40,000 deaths per year in the US in the 80s (and lots of studies that seem to show broadly similar things).”

That simply cannot be true. I grew up in the 1970s/80s when around 50% of the population smoked, and were allowed/encouraged to almost everywhere, all the time. If it were that dangerous, then why aren’t all the barmaids/nightclub bouncers/bus conductors/cabin crew/cinema projectionists of the era dead ? And why are respiratory disesase like asthma actually increasing as smoking rates decrease ? It’s almost impossible to weed out other environmenteal factors across the whole population – two that spring to mind are lead in petrol and the widespread use of asbestos in the 60s/70s, there are probably many others.

Guano (@ 2): This is of course the crucial point – that vested interests influencing legislation by lobbying can pimp their angle in any which way, but advisers presenting scientific data must keep quiet if their advice goes against the grain of what is deemed politically expedient. Not acceptable at all…

John Q. Publican (@ 4): I accept the difference, and would be happy to the change the wording – there is indeed a difference between use of a substance (recreationally) and abuse, so good point well made. The difficulty is that in the public’s mind (and admittedly mine too when writing this article!) the two go hand-in-hand.

The discussion about smoking is interesting. Meta-analysis (overviews of all published data, thus eliminating risk of basing opinion on a single trial/study that may be flawed or a one-off) consistently show that occupational exposure to smoke raises the relative risk of contracting lung cancer – see this study for example, so just because Matt Munro (@ 11) says ‘that simply cannot be true’ does not make that assertion correct, and it also deals with your point in @10 about passive smoking affecting spouses only..

thanks for the comments folks 🙂

Prateek @12:

Thank you; that’s why I brought it up. I have been (occasionally, I must admit) working on a series of essays covering the psychology and politics of prohibition. This particular campaign in the War on Fun is one of the big wins for the forces of Puritanism. They managed to define ‘use’ as ‘abuse’ but only for certain drugs. Gin, for example, but not whiskey. Cannabis, but not tobacco. And so on.


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