Steve Connor: When ministers have a beef with scientists

Science Notebook: One of Winston Churchill's less famous quotations is that science "should be on tap but not on top"

Tuesday 03 November 2009 01:00 GMT

The row over the sacking of the drugs 'tsar' Professor David Nutt does not look like it's going to go away soon. Professor Nutt now has the support of a growing number of scientists who have expressed concern about the Government's seemingly selective attitude to the science advice it seeks. As Professor Sir John Krebs, a former Food Standards Agency boss, puts it, it's a "pick'n'mix" approach, hiding behind science when policy decisions are difficult to stomach, and rejecting the science when the policy it supports may offend sections of the press.

The friction between science advisers and policy makers it not of course new. One of Winston Churchill's less famous quotations is that science "should be on tap but not on top", which neatly summed up the general post-war attitude in Britain to the expertise offered by scientists in various disciplines. Scientists advise, policymakers decide.

I always remember the occasion when a former minister responsible for BSE said on live television in the early 1990s that there was "no conceivable risk" from eating beef, with his science adviser visibly squirming in his seat next to him. The adviser later told me he almost interjected, saying he could in fact conceive of a very real risk to human health, but felt it was not his place to embarrass a minister so publicly on live TV. Months later, scientists found unequivocal evidence that BSE-infected beef was potentially lethal. And the rest is history.

Nutt on our watch, professor

Speaking of that memorable quotation about scientists being on tap not on top, the phrase was apparently popular in the McCarthy witch-hunt era of the 1950s, according to an article written in 1958 by the Nobel physicist Hans Bethe. It was used to slap down those scientists, mostly physicists, with a social conscience about the development of the H-bomb.

"According to this view, scientists should only speak when asked, and should confine themselves to reporting the scientific and technical facts; they should not express their opinion, nor make moral judgements ... I believe this attitude to be wrong," wrote Bethe. "I believe it is not only the privilege but the duty of the scientist, individually and collectively, to make his opinion and vision known to the government – but it is for the government, not the scientist, to make the last decision, which may well turn out contrary to his expressed opinion, and he should then abide by it."

Nutt and Johnson, take note.

The King of climate change

One science adviser who can be credited with influencing government policy in a big way is Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser who convinced Tony Blair of the dire consequences of global warming.

Sir David has now been awarded one of the highest accolades in France, the Legion d'Honneur, for his role in promoting nuclear fusion power stations – the same process that powers the Sun.

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