UK Government Forbids Publicly-Funded Scientists And Academics From Giving Advice It Disagrees With
from the la-la-la-la-la-not-listening dept
Three years ago, Techdirt wrote about the Canadian government muzzling scientists and librarians, in a clear effort to prevent them from pointing out that some of Canada’s policies were scientifically stupid. That was a blatant attempt to censor those who had not just inconvenient opinions but also awkward facts that would have made life difficult for the Canadian government. The UK wants to do something similar, by forbidding scientists and academics from using their expertise to push for changes in policy — even in private. As The Guardian reported:
The proposal — announced by the Cabinet Office earlier this month — would block researchers who receive government grants from using their results to lobby for changes to laws or regulations.
For example, an academic whose government-funded research showed that new regulations were proving particularly harmful to the homeless would not be able to call for policy change.
Similarly, ecologists who found out that new planning laws were harming wildlife would not be able to raise the issue in public, while climate scientists whose findings undermined government energy policy could have work suppressed.
The new policy is contained in an amendment to the agreement that all those receiving grants from the UK government must sign. As the press release announcing the move explained:
A new clause to be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements will make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people?s lives and good causes, rather than lobbying for new regulation or using taxpayers? money to lobby for more government funding.
That might sound reasonable, especially the last part about not being able to lobby for more funding. It is aimed mainly at organizations that receive government grants, but many academics believe that it is so loosely worded that it will also apply to them, and will prevent them from pushing for new regulations in any circumstances. Even if that is not the UK government’s intention, the mere existence of the policy is bound to have a chilling effect on the academics, since few will want to run the risk of having their grants taken away by inadvertently breaking the new rules.
Academics aren’t the only ones who are worried. Recently, a group of MPs who sit on the important House of Commons Science and Technology Committee wrote a letter to the UK government expressing their concern that:
The “anti-lobbying” clause to be inserted into new grant agreements will create a barrier to evidence-based policymaking and will have unintended effects on the work of [Parliament’s advisory] select committees.
Specifically, the politicians on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee wrote:
We are concerned that the Cabinet Office’s announcement has created ambiguity, and that researchers will become reluctant to present to us the policy recommendations that arise from their work. Academics may also become unwilling to take on advisory positions in Government or Parliament, and may even feel uncomfortable speaking at conferences where policymakers are present, for fear of falling foul of this clause.
The well-known UK academic and medical campaigner Ben Goldacre has written a powerful and informative piece explaining why he believes his “lobbying” of politicians serves an important function. He says:
I don’t just want this ban overturned: I want to see more academics talking to policymakers, and I want the public to know what we do, so that they can decide if it’s good or bad.
Indeed, he suggests that rather than forbidding academics from lobbying for new regulations, they should be encouraged and even trained to do so:
If you’re an academic who lobbies, then don’t be shy, and don’t be scared: you should share your experiences, and your techniques. If you want to waste even more time on activities with no credit and no hope of funding, then perhaps we could set up a course, or a forum, to pool knowledge on better ways to interact with [the UK government]. And lastly, if you?re a politician, and you really want to ban this activity, then shame on you. You’re a failure, an obstacle to good progress, and an outlier. But there’s one final piece of happier news. You won’t last long.
Let’s hope he’s right.