Evidence-based policy

I heard earlier on the news that Alan Johnson has sacked David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, after he published this paper criticising the current drugs classification policy in the UK. To someone who has been following what passes for debate in this area for years, Professor Nutt has said little that comes as a surprise. However, after Nutt disagreed publicly with two Home Secretaries in as many years, Johnson has done what all politicians do in such circumstances and shot the messenger.

What chance is there for practical solutions to society’s worst problems when the highest powers in the land put their fingers in their ears and sing “la la la” any time they’re told things they don’t want to hear? It is clear that politicians don’t regard scientific research as a tool to inform the decision-making process. Instead, scientific evidence is treated with the same respect as criminal evidence often was in the bad old days of the ’70s. Call it the Gene Hunt method of policy formation. The politician already “knows” what the policy should be, and the only acceptable evidence is that which supports the right answer. The system continues safely on without its paradigms being shifted, and bad policy keeps getting implemented in the face of overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work.

It took years of campaigning and appeals to correct the wrongs perpetrated by the Gene Hunt method of police investigation, and times have thankfully changed for the better. But the Gene Hunt method lives on in policy formulation, which isn’t subject to appeal or judicial review. Who will take the side of the plain, unvarnished truth in the court of public opinion? Not government ministers, that’s for sure.