A New Anti-Lobbying Clause from May 1st banning the ability of scientists and social scientist from lobbying the government to change its policies, based on the results generated from state funding, will create an anti-democratic, anti-science and anti-evidence based culture within government. Whilst governments past and present have not always been adept at picking up on evidence when directing policy (the failed badger cull policy comes to mind), the ability of scientists and other lobbyists to speak out has always been held as sacred. The new clause however, appears set to change that, putting in place a worrying new precedent in which the roles are reversed. No longer will science influence government policy – government policy will influence what science is allowed to flourish, and what is allowed to die.
Sir Martin Rees. photograph: Jon Tonks
The government of course has a record when it comes to science. Despite singing the virtues of an economy based on a strong research and development base, the UK now spends only 0.44% of its GDP on public funded Research and development – the smallest percentage of the G8 nations, all in spite of a bank of evidence suggesting the accumulative nature of returns on science spending. Add to that a policy that is driving away international students by insisting that they must leave the country as soon as they have finished their studies, and it is not hard to see that the scientific community is becoming increasingly angry and exasperated at a government that talks the talk but doesn’t seem interested on delivering the action.
Whilst funding issues most will have come to terms with, the new Anti-Lobbying Clause presents a daring and much more alarming attack on academic freedom and a worrying lack of consideration on behalf of the government. By preventing lobbying, the government risks starving itself even further of good scientific advice chiefly because it might go against current policy, as well as creating a culture in young scientists who are too intimidated or scared to confront obvious deficiencies in legislation. If a government is intent on following a particular policy point, but prevents those with counteractive evidence from coming forward to provide evidence of its ineffectiveness, then as Cambridge zoolist Professor William Sutherland says “then we will have many poorer decisions being made by government for the simple reason that it will have starved itself of proper scientific advice.”
Others have suggested that this is simply an attempt to avoid government embarrassment in the wake of the backlash from failed initiatives such as the badger cull, by preventing those with contrary evidence from exposing the frailties of government ideas. If this is true, then it presents a much more serious and sinister implication of the lengths the government is prepared to go to implement its own ideology and a blatant disregard for the independence of science institutions.
Opponents of the bill have been inundating the Cabinet office with protests; some 12,000 people have so far signed a petition headed by Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy. For its part, the Cabinet office promised two months ago to consider the possibility of exemptions to the policy for universities and other institutes, however, with just under two weeks to go until the policy goes through, no word has been made of whether this will occur. For others, negotiations at least appear to be ongoing – Sarah Main, director for the Campaign for Science and Engineering says she “has great hope that the government will soon provide us with a solution that will allow researchers to continue to lobby and give advice.”
However, even if such exemptions do proceed, and universities and research institutions are allowed to continue lobbying government with advice, many believe that a deep division will still remain. For many, the events over the past two months since the announcement of the policy change has created deep feelings of mistrust and anger – and the legacy of such blatant attempts to undermine academic freedom will not be forgotten quickly. The astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Ree’s, has been quick to point out, “I think there will be 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,” and it is quite clear that if not a nationwide culture of fear has been generated, then a general deepening of mistrust for government in the future.
In the next two weeks we will witness what will be a landmark ruling in government policy in science, and whatever the outcome, be it an end to lobbying or exemptions for scientists, the atmosphere in British science will surely not be the same ever again.