Why is the government trying to ban experts from advising it?

New UK government proposals would ban publicly funded research from being used to influence government policy.

Barry Gardiner
9 March 2016

By Graeme Maclean, Wikimedia, some rights reserved

Why would anyone pay for research on the express condition that they were never to be advised of the results? If that sounds more Alice in Wonderland than UK government policy then welcome to the rabbit hole!

The UK government stands accused of ‘muzzling’ scientists as new rules around public grant funding expressly prohibit them being used to influence “legislative or regulatory action” This could lock vital research like climate science out of policy making altogether.

In a communiqué that would gladden the heart of Kim Jong-un the Cabinet Office has quietly published plans for a new ‘anti-lobbying’ measure. The changes would ban organisations from using government grants for:

[Any activity] intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, Government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action”.

We’ve already seen this government limit charities and other civil society organisations input to policymaking through the Lobbying Act – an Act that despite its name failed actually to deal with any abuses by lobbying companies but targeted charities instead, whilst letting corporate lobbyists off the hook. After that, the government moved to ban local councils and public authorities from making their own investment decisions – specifically warning that councils should not divest their pension funds from financially risky fossil fuels. 

This time, publicly-funded scientists and researchers are in the firing line. An impartial observer might be forced to conclude that this latest measure is not a clumsy one-off mistake but rather that it demonstrates a worrying trend of a government shutting down all dissent. If so this is a serious and sinister threat to the public interest.

Muzzling climate science

Such catch-all rules could prevent climate scientists from using publicly-funded research to challenge the government’s fossil fuel-based energy policies. It could stop organisations who receive government funding to shore up our defences against flooding and other climate impacts, from helping to develop more robust adaptation plans.

One scientist who raised the issue in the journal Nature pointed out that the new rules are so unspecific that they could prevent the UK’s world-leading climate scientists from contributing to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Summary for Policymakers.

When research institutes are given public funds to investigate diseases or come up with new antibiotics, are we going to find that the doctors and scientists who make these breakthroughs are now gagged from telling politicians how they might improve public health?

Publicly-funded research and services deepen our understanding of human interaction with the natural world. Knowledge of how we can limit potentially devastating climate impacts is not just valuable for national policymaking, it is essential. It is bizarre – and deeply concerning – to foresee a situation where expert knowledge is effectively wasted, relegated to university libraries, while our society searches for solutions to problems that are already hitting our communities.

Tightening central control

As if institutionalised ignorance were not bad enough, the new rules would actually exercise an astonishing ministerial power of veto that would prevent scientists even beginning research in any area where the proposed work could result in recommendations that challenge existing government policy’. In such cases the requirement is that ministers would have to personally exempt projects from the blanket ban.

To be clear, government policy may be to build some large infrastructure project through an area of outstanding natural beauty; are ministers really now saying that no publicly-funded research should be allowed to assess the value of the ecosystem services provided by ancient woodland or wetland resource because the results might challenge government policy? The potential for flood damage should simply be ignored? In a context of limited and highly sought-after funding, the effect of such regulation can only be to intimidate scientists in a way reminiscent of the Papacy in the 16th century.

Reasonable people and reasoned policymaking 

Our government is making a fundamental mistake about the value of evidence-based policymaking. We are assured that the new clause will “make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people’s lives and good causes, rather than lobbying for new regulation”. But it was precisely the work of UK climate scientists that managed to persuade the previous government back in 2008 to introduce a legally binding climate change Act and drive forward new regulations for clean energy.

Without that basic science influencing government policy, and the advocacy work based upon it, we would not have had the agreement of 186 countries in Paris last year to limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we put into the earth’s atmosphere. I believe most reasonable people would think that a fairly compelling public interest case.

The Cabinet Office has attempted to justify the changes saying, "reasonable people will know that taxpayers' money should be spent on improving people's lives." 

Of course. And reasonable people knew that the earth was flat. They knew that the body was governed by the four humours and that the planet was only 4,004 years old. Our scientific knowledge has been built on the hypotheses of unreasonable people.

The moment governments begin classifying those of its citizens holding different political opinions to their own as “unreasonable”, is the moment democracy comes under threat. The government has failed to respond to calls from MPs and Lords to allow parliamentary debate on these changes. But reasonable people have a duty to speak out.

A concerned climate researcher has launched a petition calling the rules bad for the public and interest and democracy, which has gained over 4000 signatures.

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