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Fiona fox's blog

drama at the Royal Insitution, Simon Singh’s libel case dropped, and the principles of scientific advice

I can’t believe that I missed the drama at the Royal Institution a couple of weeks ago. While it was nice to be in Barcelona for a conference, it was torture getting excitable texts from journalists, scientists and colleagues describing the chaotic scenes unfolding in the RI, where 650 members packed into the building for a historic vote. As readers of this blog will no doubt be aware, the bid to replace the current council was roundly defeated, to the barely disguised delight of the RI staff who had bravely chosen to appeal directly to members to vote against the coup on the basis that more instability at the RI would mean disaster. In interviews over the next few days, Susan Greenfield, the former Director who had backed the insurgents, vowed to continue her own fight against the RI which includes a claim of sex discrimination. I do hope Susan changes her mind. There are rarely any real winners in these messy legal battles and it seems to me that both the RI and Susan now need to throw themselves into doing what they both do best – communicating science to the public.

Another welcome victory this week was the decision by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) to drop its libel case against science writer Simon Singh. The case has always been of huge interest for the Science Media Centre, which was founded to encourage more scientists to speak out on the most controversial science stories of the day. As readers of this blog may be aware, there are already a very long list of reasons why many scientists would prefer to steer clear of the media, and this and other libel actions against scientistshave done nothing to make our job easier. Not that I feel sorry for them but the BCA were especially unlucky in their choice of target. Most people would have taken the standard legal advice which is to issue retractions and apologies in order to avoid the stress and expense of a legal battle that is almost always impossible to win. Yet Simon Singh chose a different path – this man decided that there was a point of principle here that was worth defending. In doing so he put aside his own personal ambitions and career and spent thousands of pounds of his own money and two years of his life fighting for a principle. Together with the awesome campaigning skills of the team at Sense About Science this libel battle was broadened out into a full-scale assault on the UK’s perverse libel laws and their chilling effect on free speech. I have to say at a time when I am struggling to find any men or women of principle in an anodyne election campaign, it’s great to have a chance to celebrate real bravery and principle – Simon Singh is a hero and there are not very many of them around.

Talking of principles, I am in dismay at the way the new Principles governing independent scientific advice to government have already been undermined in the case of the ban on mephedrone. The Principles were drawn up by Science Minister Lord Drayson and Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington in the wake of the David Nutt affair in the hope that they would prevent anything like that happening again. While some of the words added by civil servants are a hostage to fortune, there is much to welcome in the final version. For the SMC the most welcome section encourages independent scientific advisers to use independent press officers from outside government to get their major findings out into the public domain – something that we had lobbied hard for. Another principle suggests that there should always be enough time between the publication of the independent advice and the government’s response to it to reassure us all that it has been properly considered. Yet hardly was the ink dry on these principles when they were subjected to a very public test, with the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs coming together to discuss their advice on the ‘legal high’ mephedrone. They failed the test spectacularly; instead of following the principles, the independent advisers cut short their evidence session to allow the scientific Chair of the ACMD to attend a press conference with the Home Secretary entirely managed by Home Office press officers, where they effectively made a joint announcement on the intention to ban this drug. Perhaps we should resign ourselves to the fact that that drugs advice and the ACMD is just too politicized and messy beyond the point of no return, and hope that the Principles will still make a difference in other areas – I will watch with interest!!


This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

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