Ongoing UK Research Problems (1) – Government and Science Advice
(May 25th, 2017) Independent of Brexit uncertainties, Jeremy Garwood reports on a number of other UK government policy changes and plans that are already changing the UK research labscape.
In 2015, it was announced that on 23rd June, 2016, there would be a national referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union. At the time, it seemed highly unlikely that the UK would vote to leave and most scientists were more concerned with questions of government funding for their research. Since 2010, the conservative UK government had been committed to reducing public debt through an ‘austerity’ programme of cutbacks in public expenditure.
For 2015, it had asked all departments to propose cuts of 25% to 40% for the next 4 year spending cycle. The government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), responsible for scientific research in the UK, commissioned a major review to find ways to increase the efficiency of its science funding through the seven research councils, which spend £3 billion on science each year.
There were fears that further drastic cuts to UK science would result in irreversible losses. However, in November 2015, the government announced that it would spare science from the worst cutbacks. Although BIS would be cut by 17%, the chancellor, George Osborne, said the budget for science would be protected “in real terms, so it rises to £4.7 billion.” But, as Jenny Rohn (cell biologist founder of Science is Vital) noted, this would still leave UK science worse off in 2020 than it was in 2010. “What we really badly needed was a robust real-terms investment - and a long-term plan.”
However, the Conservative government has often been in conflict with academic research that contradicts government policy declarations, notably concerning certain commercial interests and the effects that these were having on human health and the environment. For example, the UK government has been accused of undermining EU attempts to regulate the neonicotinoid pesticides, implicated in the drastic decline of bee populations in Western Europe and North America (analysed in Lab Times' Honey bees and pesticides – the Killing fields). In July, 2015, the Guardian reported on how the UK government had gagged its own pesticide advisers, after they refused to back an application by the National Farmers Union to lift a ban on bee-harming chemicals. “The gag is intended to prevent campaigners lobbying ministers on the issue”. In effect, the UK’s Expert Committee on Pesticides was told to postpone publication of its minutes after it had refused to back farmers’ request to use banned neonicotinoids on oil seed rape.
The issue was further complicated because the EU had accepted science advice that neonicotinoids caused serious harm to bees and had introduced a ban in the European Union in 2013. The UK government unilaterally suspended the EU ban in 2015. Prime minister, David Cameron, defended the decision saying “We should follow the science.” But whose science? That of the companies selling the pesticides or that of the scientific advisers?
In another example, it was revealed that the UK government had tried to block EU moves to clean up air quality despite increasing evidence that air pollution in cities like London was causing severe health problems. It emerged that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had been advising British members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to vote against legislation that would oblige countries to carry out “routine and non-routine” inspections on the “real-world” gas and particle emissions from diesel cars. Meanwhile, for over a year, the UK’s Department for Transport had “ignored” scientific evidence of fraudulent practices employed by the car industry to disguise such emissions.
The UK’s future Brexit status has added uncertainty about potential changes to regulatory frameworks protecting human health and the environment. At present, the UK is subject to the rules and legislation that apply throughout the EU. But, on certain issues, such as pesticides and environmental pollution, successive UK governments have been very sympathetic to the pesticide industry (which is heavily implanted in the UK, e.g. Syngenta and Bayer) and actively opposed to strengthening EU pesticide legislation. Currently, over 100 pesticides are banned in the EU for health and environmental reasons, and more - including dozens of chemicals that are thought to be endocrine disrupting - are likely to be banned before the UK could leave the EU. How will the UK government react to scientific advice that conflicts with its future policies?
Meanwhile, in the debate leading up to the ‘Brexit’ referendum, scientific ‘truth’ and respect for evidence-based ‘facts’ was not much in evidence. At this juncture, the government apparently decided that it could eliminate much negative criticism, by simply ‘gagging’ critics, who had received public money to do the research that formed a basis for their criticism of government policy (see part 2 – Gagging Science).