Senior chemists leave drugs council following dismissal of chair
Since the unceremonious dismissal of David Nutt as the chair of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), the panel has been haemorrhaging scientific expertise, as fellow advisers - including two prominent chemists - quit as a result of the ’disgraceful’ way the scientist was treated, and in protest at the government’s handling of scientific advice.
On 30 October, Nutt was sacked from the ACMD by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after he learnt that Nutt openly questioned government drugs policy in a lecture at King’s College London earlier this year. Nutt’s comments regarding the relative risks of cannabis and ecstasy compared to alcohol and tobacco led Johnson to say that he had ’lost confidence in Professor Nutt’s ability to be [his] principal adviser on drugs’.
The decision to ask Nutt to resign has, however, caused the scientific community and a number of politicians to round on Johnson, saying his actions throw the role of scientific advisers into question and punish Nutt for voicing his scientific opinion.
’I’ve got right on my side,’ Nutt told Chemistry World . ’I haven’t done anything wrong; all I’ve done is tell the world what they already knew. Sacking your adviser because he tells you something that 95 per cent of the population agrees with seems a bit daft.’
Although Nutt admits Johnson has found support from a small number of psychiatrists with an interest in the effects of cannabis, he says he has had ’almost universal support’ from scientists, his peers and the general public.
Losing a key chemical element
As Chemistry World went to press, a total of five members of the ACMD had resigned in the wake of Nutt’s dismissal, three shortly after Johnson met with the council seeking to calm tensions.
’I resigned from the council because of the way David Nutt was treated,’ former ACMD senior chemist Les King told Chemistry World . ’I thought it was disgraceful.’ King had been associated with the ACMD for 15 years, but says the events surrounding Nutt’s dismissal were ’the final straw’ that drove him to resign.
’I’ve provided chemical advice over many years, and the thing that has really irked me is the way that government has come to the advisory council with a predetermined expectation of what the conclusion of various reviews would be,’ he explains.
’We all recognise that the government could ignore our advice if they wish to, but if they consistently ignore it then we feel we’re wasting our time.’
King’s resignation in particular throws the ability of the ACMD to function effectively into doubt. The UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act specifies six scientific positions on the council which must be fulfilled in order for it to be quorate, including that of a chemist and a pharmacist, two positions which now stand empty.
’The ACMD struggled to find a chemist who understood the drugs situation, and I did that,’ says King, explaining that the council repeatedly advertised the role and chased him for over a year to accept the position. Finding a suitable replacement and persuading them to take up the post following recent events is likely to be a difficult task.
’As far as I know, there isn’t really any [chemistry] expertise left on the council,’ says former ACMD member Simon Campbell, a past president of the Royal Society of Chemistry who was involved in the discovery of the blockbuster drugs Viagra and Norvasc. He resigned from the ACMD following the Nutt affair.
’These are really very important positions,’ he says. ’Making these appointments - chemistry, pharmacy and the chair - is going to be very important and [they] need to be made as soon as possible.’
As well as leaving one of these compulsory positions unfilled, King’s resignation comes at a time when his specialist knowledge is sorely needed. He has been instrumental in drafting legislation currently going through parliament on the control of synthetic cannabinoids, such as the smoking mixture Spice. Without his expertise, the government is going to struggle to digest the ’intensely chemical’ package of proposed controls, says King.
’Chemistry is coming more to the fore,’ says Nutt. ’Losing such a senior, experienced chemist as Les King is a very stupid mistake because he’s the only person who understands - he put together the legislation around Spice and now he’s gone.’
’We recognise that important advice around the very complex chemistry involved here is vital,’ UK science minister Lord Drayson told Chemistry World . ’The government has to have access to the best possible advice and having the best possible adviser on the chemistry of these issues is very important indeed. I’m sure that the government’s chief scientific adviser will be working to ensure that the government has access to that advice.’
Outside the ACMD, the wider scientific community has shown its support for Nutt and used the circumstances surrounding his dismissal to call for a new code of conduct for government and science advisers. 28 leading UK scientists called on the government to endorse new ’principles for the treatment of scientific advice’, which they say would ’enhance confidence in the scientific advisory system and help government to secure essential advice’.
Roger Pertwee, an expert in cannabinoid pharmacology from the University of Aberdeen, UK, agrees that rules should be clearer. Advisory council members ’should be perfectly free to talk about the science unless [they have] signed some confidentiality agreement’, he says.
’This is not the first time that advisers have given advice and governments have ignored it,’ says John Mann, emeritus professor of chemistry at Queen’s University Belfast, UK, and author of a recent book on psychoactive drugs. ’Unfortunately, most politicians are scientifically illiterate, and so if the science doesn’t suit their requirements, there is always going to be the tendency for them to ignore it.’
Reform or replace
The challenge now will be to reconstruct the ACMD and restore trust between the government and the scientific community, which has been badly battered over the weeks since Nutt’s dismissal.
’There’s a fundamental disconnect between politics and science, and accepting scientific recommendations that may not win many votes is very difficult for any government,’ says Campbell. ’There’s a heavy responsibility on Alan Johnson and the Home Office to rebuild the advisory council into an independent group that has the attention and the respect of government.’
Nutt has made it clear that he is willing to establish an independent committee to provide scientific advice on drugs distinct from the ACMD, and has received an offer of financial backing for the venture. Unless the rules of the ACMD change, he says, it will be impossible for the council to regain public trust.
’I don’t want to set up an independent council,’ says Nutt, ’but if the government doesn’t react to the issues that have been raised by my sacking and change the way in which the drugs council is managed, the public and the media will not believe what it says.’
King has agreed to join Nutt’s independent committee if it is formed: ’I’d like to carry on giving chemical advice to government in some way,’ he says. ’It needs it because chemistry is at the core of what the advisory council does.’ Campbell, however, dismisses the idea as an unnecessary distraction. ’Having another council which, almost by definition, the government won’t listen to, to me is a complete non-starter and a red herring,’ he says. ’What we should be doing is concentrating on reconstructing the current advisory council.’
Drayson believes that the events of recent weeks will help push the role of scientific advisory committees up the agenda, and was swift to stress the independence of the government’s science advisers. ’I am reassuring [scientific advisers] of the fact that from the prime minister down, this government recognises and values the independence of scientific advice,’ he told Chemistry World . ’It recognises that scientific advisers have to have the ability to publicly say what they feel, and what they say cannot be grounds for dismissal.’
However, Drayson also says there is a real need for a clear set of ’rules of engagement’ between science advisers and the government, which although acknowledging the independence of advisers, stresses that while government is informed by scientific advice, ’in the end government and ministers make the decisions, and the scientific community needs to recognise that that is the case.’