Clashes between the government and its expert advisers

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b4662 (Published 11 November 2009)
Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4662

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  1. Michael Gossop, head of research1,
  2. Wayne Hall, head of research2
  1. 1National Addiction Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London SE5 8AF
  2. 2School of Population Health, University of Queensland, Herston, QLD 4006, Australia
  1. m.gossop{at}iop.kcl.ac.uk

    Advisers need clearer rules on how to express contrary views

    In the United Kingdom, experts advise and government ministers make policy with no obligation to accept their experts’ advice. For example, ministers have often declined to accept expert advice to raise alcohol taxes as a way of reducing problem drinking.1 The recent sacking of Professor David Nutt from the chairmanship of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) occurred because a minister rejected the recommendations of an expert adviser who continued publicly to express a view that was contrary to government policy.

    The question of how science should be used to formulate government policy has been a problem on many occasions, in the UK and elsewhere. Disagreements between government and experts on the risks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) from eating beef in the late 1990s prompted the reformulation of rules on the use of scientific evidence in developing policy. In the BSE affair, ministers discounted expert advice that the disease in cows might spread to humans, and the official BSE Inquiry subsequently recommended that the advice and the reasoning of expert advisory committees should be open and transparent.2

    The circumstances leading up to the sacking of Professor Nutt can …

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