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Professor David Nutt: oration

Read Professor Stephen Husbands' oration on Professor David Nutt for the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in December 2016.


David Nutt is one of the world’s leading experts in clinical and preclinical psychopharmacology. He is currently the Edmund J. Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and Visiting Professor at the Open University and at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He is President of the European Brain Council and founding Chair of DrugScience (formerly the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs), Fellow of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, of Psychiatrists and of the Academy of Medical Sciences, UK Director of the European Certificate and Masters in Affective Disorders courses and a member of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy. He has edited the Journal of Psychopharmacology for over twenty years and acts as the psychiatry drugs advisor to the British National Formulary. He keeps himself busy!

David is very much a local, living in the outskirts of Keynsham and starting his academic life at Bristol Grammar School. He studied medicine at Cambridge before moving to Guys Hospital in London, where he completed his medical training, and then to Oxford, where he obtained his MD, later becoming a Wellcome Senior Fellow in psychiatry. He then spent two years as Chief of the Section of Clinical Science in the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in NIH, Bethesda, USA. He returned in 1988 to set up, along with Dr John Lewis (himself now a Visiting Research Fellow at Bath), the Psychopharmacology Unit in the University of Bristol. He moved to Imperial College in December 2008, where he leads a similar group with a particular focus on brain imaging.

David’s commitment to communicating science to the public is well known. He broadcasts widely on radio and television; highlights include being a subject for The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4, several BBC Horizon programmes and the Channel 4 documentary Ecstasy-live. In 2010, The Times Eureka science magazine voted him one of the one hundred most important figures in British Science; he was the only psychiatrist in the list.

Professor Nutt has argued strongly for politicians and policy makers to use science to inform rational drug policy, especially when discussing the risks and benefits of recreational drugs. This has often put him at odds with politicians, who all too often hark back to the Churchillian adage that science should be on tap not on top, and also with parts of the press where moral outrage, fear and pretence cloud rationale debate. In this regard, his book Drugs without the hot air is of particular note, winning the Transmission Prize for Communicating Science in 2014. David was also awarded the 2013 John Maddox Prize for promoting sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest, whilst facing difficulty or hostility in so doing. He has inspired and encouraged scientists throughout the UK and the world to play a full role in all aspects of life, whether in international policy meetings or debates in pubs.

I want to finish by highlighting some of David’s research, as it is his excellence here that has underpinned all that I have mentioned before. His work has been published in more than 450 original research papers, including a ground-breaking publication in Nature describing the concept of inverse agonism at the GABAA-benzodiazepine receptor and follow-up studies showing links to anxiety and seizures in animals; ultimately, similar processes underpin human disorders. He has been at the forefront of work to define the therapeutic potential of drugs such as psilocybin and MDMA and the role of the noradrenaline, α2-adrenoceptor and imidazoline systems in the brain.

Above all, his enthusiasm for science, his good humour (and courage) and his desire to share and collaborate continue to inspire many of us.

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Professor David Nutt who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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