Ongoing UK Research Problems (2) – Gagging Science
(May 30th, 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 February 2016, the UK Government’s Cabinet Office announced that a new clause would be inserted into grant agreements, banning organisations that received government grants from using these “taxpayer funds to lobby government and Parliament”. To justify this policy, it pointed to a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs, the prominent neoliberal ‘think-tank’.
UK academics soon realised the enormity of the government’s censorship. Although the government spoke of NGOs and other groups, such as charities, the proposed ‘gagging’ order would also affect all publicly-funded researchers, including anyone who worked in a UK university!
This was described as “the pursuit of ignorance” by public health academics who recalled the observation by the economist JM Keynes that “There is nothing a government hates more than to be well-informed, for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult”. However, they also noted that the real motivation for the gagging clause appeared to come directly from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). This free-market, privately-funded, neoliberal institution (founded in 1955) had presented sustained critiques of public health advocates and researchers. The IEA’s position was that only money raised through sources other than taxation should be used to influence government spending. This, in effect, would favour lobbying by privately-funded commercial interests since wider public interests, often represented by publicly-funded researchers, would be blocked. Unfortunately, they noted, some private sector views “clearly run counter to public health” e.g. the IEA has received significant funding from leading tobacco manufacturers.
Although the aim of the Cabinet Office edict was to stop NGOs, mostly charities, from using taxpayer-funded grants to lobby the government or parliament using the government’s own funds, senior scientists, campaigners and research groups said it would also “muzzle” scientists from speaking out on important issues. It was a “straightforward assault on academic freedom”.
Nearly 20,000 academics signed a petition calling for scientists to be exempted from the ban. Cambridge zoologist, William Sutherland, said “The government already has a bad track record for not following good scientific advice”- e.g. over badger-culling or heavy flooding in the West of England - but “we will have many more poor decisions being made by government for the simple reason that it will have starved itself of proper scientific advice.” And Sir Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, said he was particularly worried that the gagging dispute would leave a legacy - “Young scientists who are just getting their first grants will be seriously concerned that their views and opinions are not going to be welcomed by government. This is not going to encourage them to speak out in future.”
After two months silence, the Cabinet Office finally announced exemptions for major government-backed funding bodies, including the research councils, the national academies and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. But Martin Rees criticised ministers for taking so long to clarify the proposals, contributing to “confusion and ambiguity that generated needless anxiety, ill-feeling and time-wasting.”
Mark Maslin, a climatologist at University College London, insisted that the independence of a country’s scientific expertise was central to the freedoms demanded by a modern democracy. “If government or commerce, whether inadvertent or knowingly, put people at risk then scientists must be free to sound the warning bells without the risk of censure or legal proceedings. By rights the government should be granting a full exemption to all scientists sending a clear message that scientific knowledge is above petty party politics and is there for the betterment of all citizens.”
Yet, scientists were uncertain whether the government had really made a mistake when it introduced the gagging clause without contemplating its consequences. If this was the case, then its slow response had caused unnecessary damage to its relations with its scientists. But others questioned whether the government had in fact been testing opposition to its anti-lobbying stance in order to dissuade scientists from “embarrassing” government projects in the future. This raised the prospect that the government might plan to further restrict academic freedom. An impression that was further reinforced when in May 2016, the government presented details of its new laws for reorganising UK research and higher education.
Described as “the biggest shake-up in the sector for more than a generation”, an editorial in Nature was soon calling researchers to “stand up for UK research freedom”, warning that the proposed higher-education and research bill would “demolish the agreements that protect British universities from political interference”. As discussed in the next part of this series, it included changes that would extend direct ministerial control over academic freedom.