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Sense About Science: The John Maddox Standing up for Science Award

Sophie Macken      

4th November 2013

Why David won the John Maddox Standing up for Science Award

Our cultural imagination features some odd and rather unflattering stereotypes of scientists; the socially awkward oddballs out of touch with reality, or the maniacs in blood-stained lab coats you may have encountered this Halloween. Thankfully for DrugScience, with its mission of promoting an evidence-based public discussion around drugs, Professor Nutt defies these stereotypes rather more than his name would suggest. David is in his element in his laboratory and in his clinical work, but equally stellar when speaking to young festival-goers at the Secret Garden Party festival and giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee. He demonstrates on a daily basis that evidence is not irrelevant or threatening, rather, that knowledge is for everyone, that engaging with evidence benefits society. That is standing up for science. David has been at the forefront of his academic field, and improving his patients’ wellbeing for decades, but to understand just how fitting this accolade is, we need to consider the last four years.

Exactly four years ago, Jon Gaunt wrote the following in Britain’s most popular newspaper after David had commented on the relative dangers of illegal drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy compared to alcohol and tobacco. “He wants to reclassify all drugs on a “harm” basis and in an academic sense he might be correct. But we are not talking about a society that is only confined to the lofty intellectual towers of a university campus… It's perfectly acceptable for Nutt to have these discussions in the cosseted world of academia but it is totally irresponsible for him to pontificate in public and in his position as Drug Tsar. He must be sacked immediately.”

David had, it seems, broken an unwritten rule stating that the public are vulnerable to reality and must be protected from the dangers of scientific evidence around drugs. If this quote sounded silly then, it is staggering now. David was indeed sacked, but instead of being humiliated into silence, he founded DrugScience and has redoubled his efforts to stand up for science, to bring the discussion of drugs out of that “cosseted world of academia” and into the public domain.

Perhaps not many people realise that when he was sacked, David did not lose a government salary and pension; members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs are unpaid public servants. DrugScience follows the same model;- he and the other 20 Committee members contribute their time for the public good without financial reward. DrugScience is a lean machine, with only two part-time staff on the payroll. All donations go straight to our day to day operation and pursuing our projects. With a huge support-base in and outside the scientific world, and plenty of plans ready to be put into action, funding is the only limit to what we can achieve. If, like us, you admire David’s generosity in dedicating his time to standing up for science, please stand with him by donating to DrugScience. Together, we can make the evidence matter.

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