(This is a copy of a blog originally published by Manchester University's Whitehall Watch in March 2015.)
Respected scientist Sir Paul Nurse recently expressed his distress that politicians sometimes “ignore” scientific evidence. Here is a slightly different take on the issue from the perspective of a recent senior civil servant.
At one level, of course, I agree with Sir Paul. I can’t prove it but I suspect that many if not most Ministers would (if they could) legalise cannabis and ecstasy, and sharply increase the cost of all alcoholic drinks. Many would also be tempted to ban dangerous sports – especially for children – including horse-riding, rugby and boxing. The fact that they do not do so upsets Sir Paul who feels “distressed” when scientists find clear evidence that contributes to a particular issue – such as drugs policy – only for politicians to ignore it “because they don’t think it will play well with the public”. “It indicates a total lack of leadership on the politicians’ part,” he told BBC Newsnight’s Evan Davis. “They have the evidence in front of them but they sometimes are cowardly about using their intelligence and using our evidence to come to a leadership decision.”
There are two problems with this analysis. The first is that leaders cannot lead unless their followers remain willing to follow them, and it is far from clear that the great British public would willingly accept many of the decisions that seem so obviously correct to Sir Paul. Sir William Harcourt’s comment that “The Minister exists to tell the Civil Servant what the Public will not stand” remains as true as it ever was.
The second problem is that the public’s risk appetite depends very much on the non-scientific context within which the risk is taken. We all dread dying in an airplane accident much more than we fear dying in a car accident, which is why apparently disproportionate resource is devoted to aviation safety. We more readily accept risks that we can control (horse-riding. rock-climbing) than risks imposed on us by others (polluters). And we certainly don’t like risks that might damage our children and future generations, which is one reason why nuclear power is so much more closely regulated than coal mining. (Click here for a longer discussion of this subject.)
Sir Paul’s comments bring to mind those of Professor David Nutt, Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who said that taking ecstasy was no worse than the risks associated with “Equine Addiction Syndrome”, a term he invented to describe people’s addiction to horse-riding which causes 10 deaths and more than 100 road traffic accidents a year. This caused a fuss that was tolerated by Ministers. But then, in October 2009, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies published a lecture by Professor Nutt and quoted the Centre’s Director as saying that “Professor Nutt’s briefing gives us an insight into what drugs policy might look like if it was based on the research evidence, rather than political posturing and moralistic positioning”. This was a step too far for the Home Secretary who promptly sacked the professor, believing that Professor Nutt had gone beyond giving advice and had begun to campaign on an essentially political issue. In a letter to The Guardian he noted that “There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction”.
Sir Paul should not therefore have accused Ministers of ‘ignoring’ science or of cowardice or lacking leadership. This is bound to make them defensive. A much more positive approach would have been to recognise that Ministers and scientists are on the same side in wanting the public (and in particular the media) to understand the science underlying these difficult policy areas, so that attitude-changing discussion can take place. It is interesting, for instance, to note that three government departments have come together with industry to prepare an Agri-Tech strategy which implicitly (though not very explicitly) involves support for GM food, another supposed hazard which has diminished under scientific scrutiny. The main obstacle to the development of GM technology now lies outside the UK, and elsewhere in the EU. But that is another story …