Why should experts bother serving government?

I have often wondered why scientific and other experts bother accepting commissions from the UK government to provide impartial advice on controversial matters. After all, we regularly have spin-doctors within Downing Street and Whitehall leak what the government considers to be the correct conclusions from such consultation exercises. This even happens before the committees have had a chance to meet for the first time.

Today we see this happening again with the classification of cannabis. Gordon Brown’s government asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to review its predecessor’s decision in 2004 to downgrade cannabis to class C. This the council has done. Its report published today states that there is insufficient evidence to warrant a re-re-classification of the drug to class B.

Has the government listened? Not only has the government rejected the ACMD’s advice, it has both directly and through third parties contemptuously dismissed the council and its work. A senior police officer interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this morning was asked if it was right to reject expert advice to make a political point. He replied quite brazenly that this was perfectly legitimate. What is important, he said, is to send the “right signal” to those who use cannabis or are tempted to do so.

Well if that is the establishment’s view, then I suggest that scientists and other experts called upon by government to give independent advice reject such requests on the grounds that they have better things to do than waste their time in this way.

Will the government’s move have any effect on the levels of cannabis use in society? I doubt it very much. But it will at the very least reduce the credibility and moral authority of the state. It will also damage experts who allow themselves to be drawn into these silly political games.