Worrying and contradictory policies.
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.
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.
“I am very worried about this and so are many of my colleagues,” said Professor James Wilsdon, chair of the Campaign for Social Science. “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.”
Contradiction of policy
This week, thanks to a freedom of information request, we learned that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) was considering an increase in the weighting for impact in the next Research Excellence Framework (REF), from twenty to twenty-five per cent.
HEFCE’s consultation was pulled before publication by Jo Johnson, minister for universities and science, to make way for the broader questions posed by his November 2015 higher education green paper. More recently, Lord Stern, president of the British Academy, has embarked on a comprehensive review of the REF, which is expected to report in July.
The idea of yet more pressure to demonstrate the economic and social impacts of research will inevitably prompt groans from some quarters. But one of the successes of the REF has been in moving impact to the mainstream of UK research culture, and ensuring that it is better supported and rewarded. Even if they begrudged it at first, many researchers now accept – even embrace – a greater emphasis on the many ways in which their work benefits wider society.
It was a surprise, then, to learn this month that the Cabinet Office might be driving the impact agenda in the opposite direction. Citing an analysis by the Institute of Economic Affairs of what it calls government-funded “sock puppets”, the Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock announced that from 1 May 2016, all government grants will include an ‘anti-lobbying clause’ to prevent public money being used to “lobby for new regulation or more government funding.” Specifically, government grants cannot be used to “support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties… or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.”
This flies in the face of concerted encouragement by government over the past decade for researchers to engage more actively with policy. Analysis of the near-7000 impact case studies submitted to the 2014 REF by 154 universities, found that “informing government policy” was the most common type of impact, followed by “supporting Parliamentary scrutiny” and “technology commercialization”. Similarly, the Russell Group found that fifty-five per cent of all the REF case studies submitted by its member universities had an impact on policy.