Politics vs. Science – from Galileo to Professor David Nutt

In 2009 Professor David Nutt caused controversy for the UK government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after stating the cannabis should be declassified to a Class C (rather than Class B) illegal drug.  During his time on the Council, Prof. Nutt had also claimed that recreational use of ecstasy is less dangerous than horse-riding. He was sacked from his government-advice post by Alan Johnson, the then Labour UK Home Secretary, who wrote to Nutt, “I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as chair of the ACMD.” By that logic, Johnson must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when three more scientist experts on the Council soon resigned.

Science and politics share a very complicated relationship, and have done since time began. Galilieo was condemned for stating that the Earth revolved around the sun. He was kept under life-long house arrest for his theory. Darwin’s theory of evolution has been exploited as an argument for any number of political agendas, all the way from communists to Nazis. Global warming was (and still is) a political minefield for climate scientists. The disciplines of science and politics are so intertwined such that good science is intrinsically political and policies should always be informed by science. Unfortunately, in today’s society there is a massive disconnection between scientists and politicians.

This rift is exemplified by the shocking fact that there is only one British Member of Parliament out of 650 that has a scientific, research-based PhD (Lib Dem MP for Cambridge Julian Huppert, Biological Chemistry, in case you’re wondering). Similarly in the United States, 3 in 435 people in the House of Representatives have a non-medical, scientific background. And considering Prof. Nutt’s dismissal, it seems that scientists are seen by politicians as commodity experts whose advice can be cherry-picked for a bit of ‘policy-based evidence-making’. Winston Churchill once said that science should be ‘on tap but not on top’. But what’s stopping us scientists from getting properly involved in politics?

I’m tempted to argue that, to a certain degree, it’s our own fault. As scientists, we are notoriously rubbish at PR. I imagine many of us wouldn’t want to be seen dead testiculating* with the rest of the mob in Parliament. Sadly, a lot of scientists’ work is viewed as slow, expensive, secretive and not immediately socially beneficial. The current stereotype of a scientist is sadly pretty much the same. Politicians, on the other hand, work to very tough deadlines in order to combine ethical, social, moral and economic factors into their party’s policies. These policies actually make a huge difference to people’s daily lives. As if that wasn’t enough, politicians have to try and kiss babies, refrain from calling women bigots and avoid cameras when beating up youths during the Election. Makes the lab seem pretty cushy.

The main thing scientists have got going for them if they fancy residing in Downing Street is the doctrine of science itself. As Carl Sagan (the American Brian Cox of his time) said, “science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”. The knowledge bit isn’t bad either and it lasts far beyond the sell-by date of parties’ policies.  The logic that underlies the analysis of data gathered from random, blinded, controlled trials is the perfect way of objectively testing different policies. And we’ve got buckets of that logic to share with our MPs.

U.S. President Barack Obama praises his ‘dream team’ of scientific advisors for their advice, “even when it’s inconvenient, indeed, especially when it is inconvenient”. As scientists we may not have rhetoric on our side to sugar-coat the facts; but shouldn’t that
be an advantage? We should not just be ready to inform and educate policy-makers; we should be ready to objectively challenge their decisions. In return, politicians shouldn’t dispose of us when they don’t like what we have to say. Professor Nutt hasn’t given up; he has now formed the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (win). Personally I think he sets an outstanding example to both scientists and politicians alike.

*to testiculate (verb): to gesture animatedly whilst spouting absolute b*llocks.

Post by Natasha Bray

2 thoughts on “Politics vs. Science – from Galileo to Professor David Nutt”

  1. Never mind about politicians not being scientists, they are not even macroeconomists, and that subject does not yet qualify as a science.! In short our government leaders don’t really know what to do without consulting the “experts” who themselves are quite often in a stste of not knowing or in disagreeing. Its high time that macroeconomics became scientific and technicalities ruled.

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