The Samovar

Expert advice

The recent sacking of David Nutt – formerly head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – for giving scientific advice that showed the stupidity of the government’s drugs policy, suggests taking a look at the role of expert advice in policy.

The problem is that the government can have an unstated policy of accepting expert advice when it suits them and rejecting it when it doesn’t. Such a policy is ideal for the government, because if the advice fits what they wanted to do anyway, they can claim that they are supported by evidence, and if it contradicts them they can in most cases easily shrug it off by claiming (correctly) that the point of expert advice is not that it should define policy, but that it should be taken into account as part of wider considerations, and that in this case, blah blah… The policy is equivalent in outcome to having no expert advice, but in some cases looks better. Alan Johnson’s statement in his letter to Nutt was extraordinary in tacitly recognising this:

I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as chair of the ACMD.

It is understandable then that other members of the ACMD are resigning, although it is not entirely clear how principled this stance is when everyone on that council must have known beforehand that they were helping to legitimate highly irrational policies. (I don’t want to be too critical though, maybe the strategy of working within a faulty system can do some good.)

So where does this leave the issue of expert advice? Can it play a useful role and if so, how? One possible way out of the problem above would be for the government to create advisory groups and commit itself to following their advice whatever it might be. There are various problems with this though. Firstly, it is subject to manipulation by selection of the members of the group. Secondly, it’s not clear that it would even work – Tony Blair stated the reason to go to war with Iraq “must be according to the United Nations mandate on Weapons of Mass Destruction”, but changed his mind when that mandate disappeared.

But a third and deeper problem with this and any other similar scheme is that it conceals the true nature of politics, and supports the false idea that government can be a purely technical exercise in doing whatever works. Politics is actually about conflicts of interests of different groups and classes. Portraying political issues as technical ones works to hide these truly political aspects. Governments and opposition parties are very happy to do this because they are both largely supporting the interests of the same classes/groups – typically the wealthier ones. This shouldn’t be surprising because the decision making part of the government and state largely consists of, is staffed by and supported by people in these classes.

I don’t want to suggest that there are not technical considerations in policy making, nor that expertise is irrelevant. In the case of drugs policy, for example, the evidence is overwhelming that tobacco and alcohol are more dangerous than cannabis and many other illegal drugs, making a mockery of government policy. However, I do doubt that an institutional arrangement can be devised which allows for a useful and non-political injection of expert advice into decision making. I would suggest instead that experts should be entirely independent of government. A well informed and scientifically literate press – something that is very far from what we have today – would be hugely preferable to any number of advisory councils selected by and working for the government. This would allow an injection of expertise into an explicitly political process, rather than supporting a fictional non-political one.