The UK Is About to Gag Scientists From Speaking Out

Science is meant to shine a light in dark corners and illuminate difficult topics with reason and evidence-based solutions. Too bad the UK government has a new rule that, campaigners say, effectively bars scientists from lobbying based on their findings.

The clause, which was introduced on February 6 by the Conservative Minister for the Cabinet Office, will be placed in all grant agreements from May 1. The clause states that the recipient of the grant must “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.”

At the time, Minister Matthew Hancock said that this rule change was a “common sense” way of protecting freedom of speech but making sure “taxpayers won’t be made to foot the bill for political campaigning and political lobbying.”

Senior scientists however say that while preventing NGOs from misusing taxpayer funds might have been the stated intent behind this change, the actual rule the government has put in place adds up to a “direct assault on academic freedom” that ties government grant money to tacitly agreeing with government policy. To put it another way, they say it’s ‘fall in line or no funds.’

“These critics highlight examples such as those of sociologists whose government-funded research shows new housing regulations are proving particularly damaging to the homeless; ecologists who discover new planning laws are harming wildlife; or climate scientists whose findings undermine government energy policy,” writes Robin McKie for the Guardian. “All would be prevented from speaking out under the new grant scheme as it stands.”

So concerning was this new rule that 44 MPs signed on to what’s known as an Early Day Motion calling on Parliament to discuss this change. The Early Day Motion echoes what scientists and campaign groups have been saying about the grant clause:

“…the impact the clause may have on the ability of voluntary organisations to bring real-world experience of service users and evidence-based expertise into the public policy debate, … suggesting improvements to policy or legislation, responding to the Government’s own consultations, meeting ministers to discuss broader issues and evidence from their programme or even from giving evidence if called by a select committee, and that the clause may therefore have a far broader impact than originally intended …” 

Readers familiar with Canadian law may remember that the previous Harper administration banned federal scientists from talking to the media and enforced strict communication policies which dictated what scientists could and could not say in public. For example, that rule meant that Canadian scientists could not talk about climate change or oil operations. That ban has since been repealed by the new Trudeau administration.

It would be misleading to say that the UK government’s rule is anywhere near as extensive or aggressive as the former Canadian administration’s. All the same though, scientists argue this seems to be further evidence that the government is not interested in looking at research it doesn’t like.

The government has received staunch criticism over its refusing to accept the scientific data surrounding badger culls, neonicotinoid’s effects on bees and the underlying scientific concerns surrounding fracking. While certainly these are complex issues where definitive answers are rarely achievable, the Conservative government’s appearance of closing its mind to anything that conflicts with its policy has been noted. The new gag rule seems to only enforce that notion.

For their part government ministers have denied that the new rule is meant to prevent scientists from speaking out, saying instead that it emphasizes that grant money should only be used for the specific research purposes for which it was intended.

Minister for Civil Society Rob Wilson is quoted by the Guardian as saying, “Nor does this clause seek to silence anyone. 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 authorized by ministers.”

Scientists and concerned ministers say that they are hopeful, but further guidance will be issued to address these concerns before the rule comes into effect on May 1. In the meantime campaigners are keen to keep the pressure on, saying that silence over this issue could seriously undermine steps to ensure future policy is evidence-based.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

69 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallusabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiranabout a year ago

noted with sadness

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Charmaine C.
Charmaine Cabout a year ago

Thank you. Now I know.

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Marie W.
Marie Wabout a year ago

Silence does not change the truth.

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Danuta Watola
Danuta Wabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Patricia Harris
John Taylorabout a year ago

Well, we're NOT going to stand for this!!!! No lowlife cretin is going to silence we the people!!!! If these jerks don't like what we have to say, then they can just eat dirt!!!!

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeldabout a year ago

Fred F.,
That is true. Freedom of speech has been curtailed significantly. One can be detained for various hate speech, terrorist verbiage, or speaking Arabic, among others.

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Fred F.
Fred Fabout a year ago

Here in America we have Ag Gag laws in a number of red states. These laws make it a felony to film or gather evidence of the abuse of animals on farms. You observe someone commiting a criminal act of animal abuse and film it, when you call the law it's YOU who will be arrested not the abuser. Recently a number of states have introduced legislation to make similar gag laws to protect the fracking industry. Pennsylvania was one state considering the fracking gag laws. If we truly lived in a free society,no one would dare try to pass such laws. The sad fact is that we no longer do live in a free society. The battle isn't to prevent the loss of freedom, that battle has been lost a bit here and a bit there over the past 30 years. We may not live in a nightmare state like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia yet but another 30 years down this same path and we will. We can be arrested and detained indefinitely without access to an attorney or the protection of any of the laws that once protected us as free people. These were lost by bipartisan legislation in 2012 attached to the Defense Authorization. It's called The Indefinite Detention of US Citizens law. Signed by President Obama. We have a government that claims the right to kill US citizens without Due Process. President Obama has had four Americans killed by drone attack because they spoke publicly in favor of Al Qaeda. Back when we were free,you were allowed to make extremely objectionable speeches. Now simply based on the president

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Cela V.
Cela Vabout a year ago

tyfs

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeldabout a year ago

The U.K. is not alone. The U.S. is consider doing the same, lead by the current attorney general.

https://opinion.injo.com/2016/04/254863-obamas-attorney-general-says-shes-considered-using-old-law-silence-global-warming-critics/

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