Monday, 2 November 2009
Johnson shoots the (expert) messenger.
Home secretary Alan Johnson's decision to sack the government's senior drug advisor David Nutt has stirred up a hornets nest of controversy, and not just about the effects of this or that recreational drug. Already questions are being asked regarding governments likely response to scientific advice on perhaps more pressing matters. What happens if advice on, for example, nuclear waste or climate change fails to fit in with policy? Johnson is defending his actions by claiming that advisers must stick to giving advice and leave the decision making to government. This all sounds sensible enough, democratic even. After all scientific advisers are not elected are they? But the implication of this argument is that whereas people like David Nutt might be experts in the field of science, the likes of Alan Johnson are expert in government; in making decisions on behalf of the rest of us. The signs are that we will end up arguing about the relative merits of unelected (and perhaps arrogant) scientists and elected representatives with their finger on society's pulse. The debate that we should be having of course, is about the role of experts in society. And I'm referring here not just to scientific experts, but to self proclaimed political experts as well.