Until 2006, on leaving post British ambassadors had absolute freedom to write whatever they wished in their final telegram home – the grandly entitled ‘valedictory despatch’. The despatch could contain anything the diplomats wished: about the post they were leaving, about the governments they had served, about the diplomatic service itself. Especially candid were final valedictories, written by ambassadors quitting their last posting before retirement. The opportunity to be indiscreet, without fear of reprisal, was often seized with both hands. This centuries-old tradition – the subject of a recent radio series – survived in the Foreign Office through countless changes of government, upheaval and wars – before coming to an abrupt end recently.
Given the events of the last week I wonder if the facility were extended to independent scientific advisors, what would be contained in Professor David Nutt’s valedictory despatch?
The political furore around the sacking of the Head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has brought into sharp focus the relationship between independent advice, research evidence and politics. And whilst I don’t want to use this blog to add to that debate, it is apparent that as researchers who often are reporting to government, the implications for us are important. The affair pitted seemingly opposed forces – science and politics – and was characterised by firmly entrenched positions on both sides. What was often overlooked in the discourse that followed was the extent to which independent advice – scientific and otherwise – is fundamental in the working of government departments centrally and locally. So what are the implications and consequences in making research count in policy discussions? It is difficult to know, but what is obvious is that much greater clarity needs to be given to the roles and responsibilities so that all parties are aware of where boundaries lie. Such boundaries may however evade easy capture.
The end of the valedictory despatch has been accounted for by political correctness in watering down the language that made them so unusual, and the Freedom of Information Act which has given the public permission to read a vast range of official documents.
What would be most interesting is to ascertain the degree to which research and evidence-based advice has been subject to similar pressures, and indeed whether the Nutt affair is an isolated example or speaks to a more pernicious undercurrent in government. From a researcher’s point of view, I sincerely hope it is the former.
Written by Dr Mark Llewellyn, Senior Fellow, WIHSC