Sunday, February 21, 2016

Scientists to be gagged

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. The Cabinet Office wants a special clause 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. 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.

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.

James Wilsdon, chair of the Campaign for Social Science explained “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… 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.” 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”.

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.”

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