Senior scientists have denounced a potential move to “muzzle” colleagues whose findings are disliked by the government.
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.
“I am very worried about this and so are many of my colleagues,” said Professor James Wilsdon, chair of the Campaign for Social Science. “This has sweeping implications for the way we do research in this country and the way we try to make it relevant to the nation. This is an attempt to muzzle scientists and social scientists.”
The row focuses on a new clause that the Cabinet Office wants inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements involving government money that would block recipients from using any of those funds for lobbying. It is the sweeping nature of this regulation that has alarmed academics.
Wilsdon has written a letter – with his counterpart, Dr Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering – to Matthew Hancock, minister for the Cabinet Office. They are demanding an urgent meeting with him to discuss the removal of the clause because they “fear it may have unintended consequences”.
The clause is expected to come into force in May. According to the Cabinet Office, it is intended to broaden government action aimed at stopping NGOs from lobbying politicians and Whitehall departments using the government’s own funds.
The Cabinet Office has passed this instruction on to other departments, including the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which has responsibility for providing funds for researchers in the UK, including those based at universities. The BIS said last week it was in discussions with stakeholders on how best to interpret the new rule.
Many scientists fear that unless a complete exemption is made for scientists and social scientists, their work would be muzzled. “Alternatively, exemptions could be made on an individual basis but that would drown the whole grant system in bureaucracy,” added Wilsdon.
The Cabinet Office move has also irritated scientists because, over the past few years, the government has insisted that UK research must have impact and relevance.
“Under this new regulation, if it is found their work has impact or relevance, they will now want us to keep quiet about it, it appears,” said Wilsdon.
This point was backed by Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy. “These sudden and drastic restrictions on research grants will have an immensely damaging impact on key areas of public policy, such as fighting climate change.
“They will make it much more difficult for independent university experts to advise ministers and civil servants, and hence make it easier for lobbyists, companies and campaign groups to divert policies towards their vested interests instead. This will be bad for policymaking, bad for democracy and bad for the public interest.”
But last week ministers denied the new clause was intended to silence those accepting government grants. Rob Wilson, the minister for civil society, said the clause would not stop grant recipients from reporting back to government on the impact of the grant funding.
“Nor does this clause seek to silence anyone,” he said. “It simply ensures that government grant funding is used for the purposes for which the grant was given and is not used for campaigning or lobbying unless expressly authorised by ministers.
“I would urge any organisation that receives government grants to speak to its partner department if it has any concerns or wishes to seek guidance.”