Addressing the Commons Science and Technology Committee for the final time before stepping down from his post at the end of the month, Sir John Beddington rejected a suggestion by Conservative MP David Tredinnick that, given its “widespread use” around the world, more scientific “effort” should be expended on investigating how homeopathy works.
Mr Tredinnick is a prominent supporter of homeopathy, and his appointment to the Science and Technology committee in January provoked opposition from some science advocates.
Sir John, formerly professor of applied population biology at Imperial College London, suggested that homeopathy supporters who believed their rejection of common scientific opinion would ultimately be proved right had, like climate change sceptics, fallen for the “Galileo fallacy”.
He admitted homeopathy could deliver a placebo effect, but said the “details of what you give people is manifestly nonsensical in terms of the underlying science”, and did not merit further investigation.
Professor Beddington said he was proud of seeing a chief scientific adviser installed in each government department and given sign-off on major policy. However, he lamented the loss of the government’s former chief social scientist Paul Wiles – now visiting professor of criminology at the University of Oxford – in 2010.
“We [still] get advice on social research but that overall senior challenge function is really missing and I regret it,” he said.
He said the government was looking into ways to fill the gap. One suggestion was that the vacant role of chief scientific advisor at the Department for Communities and Local Government could be filled by a social scientist who would also function as chief social scientist across government.
Sir John said he had not often had problems with government culture during his tenure, but he regretted the previous government’s handling of the sacking of its chief drug adviser, Imperial college professor David Nutt, after he expressed the view that taking ecstasy was no more risky than horse riding, and that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than many illegal drugs.
“There was a real mess and the scientific advisory process didn’t seem to work,” Sir John said.
But he added that the incorporation into the ministerial code of principles of scientific advice that he had helped to develop would “protect this freedom of scientific advice” in the future.