Chemical glassware

Well, it’s certainly been an action-packed week or so in UK science policy! No, really….

Last Wednesday saw a head-to-head between the science chiefs of the three main political parties – Paul Drayson (Labour), Evan Harris (Liberal Democrat) and Adam Afriyie (Conservative) – as they played to a crowd of over 300 to convince them that their party was the best option for the scientifically inclined at the next election.

It was a an interesting affair, with an early plea from the debate’s chair (New Scientist editor Roger Highfield) for the speakers to ‘give us succinct answers, with facts, pledges and plenty of intellectual fibre’. One could always hope.

The debate covered science funding, research impact, education and scientific advice in government, with each panellist contributing/evading and picking holes in each other’s policies to varying degrees. One thing that particularly struck me was the body language displayed during the panel discussions – one more than one occasion when Afriyie had the floor, Drayson and Harris seemed to be leaning as far away from him as they possibly could…

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Afriyie was certainly the centre of attention when the question of the role of scientific advice in government following the dismissal of drugs adviser David Nutt came up. Gobsmacked would be a fair assessment of the assembled when he brazenly said:

‘It is right, I think, that any minister, any secretary of state, if they have an adviser, should be able to dismiss them on any terms at all. Even if they just don’t like them.’

Cue outraged mumbles from the audience, and this response from Harris:

‘That means George Bush could’ve sacked every environmental adviser til he got one that agreed with him! That can’t be right…’

Afriyie has since been reported as saying that what he said ‘came out wrong’.

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This neatly brings us on to the announcement on 13 January of a new interim chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to fill the role previously held by Nutt. Les Iversen, a retired professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford and founder of pharmaceutical company Panos Therapeutics, will be taking up the post for a year.

Presumably intentionally, the announcement came the day before the launch of David Nutt’s new independent drugs advisory body. The freshly renamed Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (emphasis on the ‘scientific’, there) will be a free from the influence of politics, allowing it to focus purely on the science, Nutt says.

‘The ACMD isn’t a scientific body, it is a body made up of drug treatment people, police, magistrates etc so the way I see it working is that we will do the science, and if the ACMD want to use our science that’ll be great.’

The ISCD is being largely funded by a hedge fund manager, who has bank-rolled the project for a few years, but Nutt has been asking for donations to help keep the new board going in the long run.

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After all that excitement, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg stepped up on Monday as the only one of the three main political parties to accept the Royal Society’s invitation to speak ahead of the election. Within his speech he spoke of the need to reform UK libel law (an issue we’ve mentioned before in Chemistry World – see here and here), and of course made a dig at the current Government’s attitude towards the independence of scientific advice, saying it has been ‘a disgrace’.

Clegg also revealed a soft spot for chemistry, saying he particularly enjoyed the subject at school, ‘although perhaps more for the schoolboy pyrotechnics in the laboratory than anything else’.

Ah well…at least chemistry got a mention….

Anna Lewcock

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