The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently helped celebrate British Science Week with its hashtag #scienceisGREAT paired with patriotic tweets about Britain’s “world beating scientists”.
Yet just days after the Science Minister Jo Johnson gave the speech “Making Britain the best place in the world for science”, a new research grant clause was announced, which has been described as having “the potential to damage UK research, evidence-informed policymaking, and the wider public interest.” With just over a week to go until the rule takes effect on the 1st of May, rows over the changes have intensified.
The Cabinet office says the new clause “will make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people’s lives… rather than lobbying for new regulation”. It means that research projects funded by the state won’t be allowed to campaign for changes in legislation.
‘It means that research projects funded by the state won’t be allowed to campaign for changes in legislation’
Robin McKie, science editor for the Observer, wrote last weekend in the Guardian’s Opinion that the ban is “either a cock-up or a conspiracy”. He gave the example of a climate scientist being “prevented from speaking out” if they found data that would undermine energy policy. And he’s not alone in his contempt of the clause: a parliamentary petition labelling it “an attack on academic freedom” has garnered nearly 30,000 signatures in less than 2 months.
The government has begun an “embarrassing climbdown” over the clause. Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office George Bridges speaking in the House of Lords declared that “Grant recipients can continue to discuss the findings of publicly funded research with government or Parliament, whether that be giving evidence or in an advisory capacity.“
Science Minister Jo Johnson also sought to clarify the clause in a response to the House of Lords. “The new clause is about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is properly spent on what was intended in the grant agreements.”
“I have been talking to the research community and working hard with colleagues in government to determine what clarification may be necessary to ensure that research is not adversely affected in any way.”
Johnson confirmed that the clause would not cover scientists backed by the Research Councils or HEFCE, the publicly funded bodies handled by the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) department.
Charlotte Ravenscroft is head of policy at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. She reminded those celebrating the Cabinet’s drawback that “it shouldn’t have taken an outcry from scientists to get us here. This announcement is simply proof that the government didn’t think through the consequences before rolling out this clause.”
“IT shouldn’t have taken an outcry from scientists to get us here.”
The astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees has pointed out that even with the Government rapidly retreating “relations between scientists and government have been soured… 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.”
It remains unclear whether scientists funded by departments other than the BIS (such as the Department of Health, or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) will still be subject to the original anti-lobbying clause. Senior scientists who took part in government negotiations such as Dr Sarah Main, and Bob Ward who launched the parliamentary petition, continue to push for grants from all government department to be exempt from anti-lobbying.
Following Jo Johnson’s statement of how he will “outline more detail by 1 May, when this clause takes effect”, researchers up and down the country are hoping their ability – and, some would argue, their right – to influence policy remains.