Cosy Science is a Café Scientifique style event held every now and then in London. August’s theme was on drug control policy, with Professor David Nutt, an infamous player in ongoing drug policy, giving a talk. The main points throughout the talk can be found storified here, with feedback from some users on Twitter. The main theme was that Nutt believed that his evidence, as Chair of the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs, should have been enough to dictate reform of drug use regulations. This is fine in theory, but in practice things appeared quite different, from what I could gather on the night.
Science advisory councils’ roles are to advise. Separation of this role from actual policy making is crucial. I wouldn’t be too happy if a politician came up to future Professor Jon (touch wood) and started telling me how I should be conducting my analyses. There’s a threshold, and it shouldn’t be crossed. Admittedly, I am very new to the whole science-policy debate, but after reading around quite a bit, this is one of the more obvious things that scientists have to consider when pushing for evidence-based policy.
One couldn’t help but feel that Nutt, despite being a nice chap and a fine scientist, has been somewhat seduced by the media and public attention surrounding his dismissal and ongoing limelight in the drugs policy world, when really he should have been looking more into how evidence-based policy operates within the current political system. Perhaps if a different approach had been taken, we’d be looking at less alcohol-related crimes and health issues, and be spending most of our time instead baked on the couch, watching reruns of Dexter’s Lab and munching Cheetos. Wouldn’t that be the life.
Jonny Kiehlmann, a PhD student at Imperial College London who I was discussing this with said: “any scientific research confirming or denying anything is going to be vehemently disputed by both sides, because both sides are highly committed and biased, as are most people engaging in the research.”
Wouldn’t it be great if scientists and policy-makers of all breeds heeded these words? Nutt’s findings may be sound science, but the assumption that they are infallible and that through them he should be allowed to advise on policy decisions is not a sound understanding of the science-policy interface. Ask any [credible] scientist how extensive their sourcing of background knowledge is before researching for and writing a paper. They will all tell you that they draw on the maximum number of available sources to provide as solid a foundation to their work as possible. This is standard scientific protocol. Imagine the opposite: that someone had written a research paper, and all references were from articles written by just a single author or research group. Sirens would instantly start blaring, as there would clearly be numerous inherent biases here. The same must apply to the functionality of science in policy, and it’s here where I think Nutt seems to have got lost a bit. He may have damn good evidence to provoke policy-makers into altering regulations, but there will be numerous strands of evidence that policy-makers will have to draw upon, and not all of them will be scientific.
Using anecdotal evidence might be fine when you’re engaging a public audience, but a lot of what he said seemed to be lapped up by the crowd as genuine facts. I felt quite sickened when he started making sweeping generalisations about the relative effects on drugs, discussing deaths as nothing more than a statistic. Additionally, I could provide plenty of evidence of impact from personal experiences with drugs and people who have taken drugs to various extents. But this would be pointless, in as much as his anecdotal evidence was. Nutt, to his credit, stated that a lot of evidence simply doesn’t exist about the effects of various drugs, on a population scale. But then it seems quite counter-intuitive that he should be pushing policy reforms based on incomplete evidence. Of course, the question then becomes how do we regulate the testing of drugs, if at all? To gauge the total range impacts of cocaine, you’re going to have to ‘test the effects’ on a huge number of people.
Just to emphasise the nature of the crowd, several members popped outside at one point, coinciding with the distinct smell of pot coming through the window, followed by their asking of questions like “How would, like, legalisation of pot affect renewable energies?” (see storify). I think Nutt recognised this nature within the crowd (over half admitted they would rather smoke pot than drink alcohol), and adjusted his tone and statements made to satisfy them, with the end result simply to reinforce their preconceived notions about ‘evidence-based drugs policy’.
Two final points: Nutt may also have a conflict of interest when it comes to drug policy, see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/6874884/Alcohol-substitute-that-avoids-drunkenness-and-hangovers-in-development.html (thanks @mammuthus for pointing this one out). And Nutt’s infamous paper about the relative harms of drugs can be found here: http://www.fcaglp.unlp.edu.ar/~mmiller/espanol/Variedades,%20politica/drogas_Journal.pdf (thanks to @mammuthus again).
Final thought: is this one study enough to influence policies that inextricably involve huge social, economic and political implications? And do you take Nutt et al’s word, that their science is sound, and irrefutable?
Note: This is by no means an exhaustive analysis of all interactions between Nutt’s research team and Parliament. This is what I gleaned from his talk last night and a bit of extra reading.