British scientists challenge government

/ Source: The Associated Press

Scientists who act as government advisers must be free to discuss their findings and recommendations in public, even if they disagree with government policies, top scientists said Friday.

Their open letter was a direct response to the government's decision last week to force the resignation of David Nutt, its chief drug policy adviser, after he said the government had overstated the risks of marijuana — a drug he called far less dangerous than alcohol.

Alan Boobis, a professor of toxicology who advises the government on food safety issues, said the statement is an attempt to remind the government that, whatever its ultimate position, it should not try to fudge the facts.

"It's just to put that marker down," Boobis said in a telephone interview Thursday before the publication of the open letter by 28 top British scientists. "The science should not be misrepresented, no matter which way the policy goes."

The scientists are asking the government to agree to a set of principles which guarantee freedom from official interference, liberty to discuss their work in public and the right to have their recommendations heard.

The government said it was still formulating its response late Thursday.

The government enlists the help of scientists on 75 official committees to advise it on a host of issues, including drugs, disease and the environment, according to Dr. Evan Harris, a lawmaker with the opposition Liberal Democrats.

The recent controversy centers on the work of one of those committees — the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs — which was established nearly 40 years ago to guide the government's drug policy.

The government rejected the council's advice when officials stiffened the penalties for marijuana possession earlier this year, arguing that the science surrounding marijuana was too uncertain to take risks. In comments to justify the move last year, Prime Minister Gordon Brown described much of high-grade marijuana making its way onto Britain's streets as lethal.

Nutt, a respected professor of neuropsychopharmacology, described Brown's comments as "completely irrational."

"I'm not prepared to mislead the public about the harmfulness of drugs like cannabis," Nutt said shortly after he was dismissed. Two members of his team have since resigned in solidarity and others are reportedly considering whether to follow suit.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson said he removed Nutt not because his views contradicted the government's, but because the professor actively lobbied against official policy.

"You cannot have a chief adviser at the same time stepping into the public field and campaigning against government decisions," Johnson said Sunday. "You can do one or the other, you can't do both."

It's not unusual to find controversy at the intersection of politics and science, said Tim Donaghy, an analyst with the Cambridge, Massachussetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists. He pointed to allegations that the George W. Bush administration had tried to strong-arm researchers on environmental issue or obscure climate change findings that didn't fit its agenda.

Assessments could often be "controversial or uncomfortable for politicians," he said. "But we need to allow those scientists to speak freely."