David Nutt Guardian ‘One of the many frightening aspects of life under Joseph Stalin was the central direction of science by the Communist party. This led to egregious scientific data, disregarded in the west, but celebrated in the Soviet Union. One of the best examples was the nonsensical doctrine known as Lysenkoism, which rejected concepts such as genes and natural selection in favour of “natural cooperation” and the belief that physical changes imposed on one generation of organisms would pass down to the next – for example that plucking the leaves from a plant would encourage leaflessness in its descendants. Scientists who questioned the official view, such the geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, were denounced, exiled and in many cases sentenced to death. The British government now seems to be trying to limit scientific outputs to those that support its policies. Hard to believe? That’s the effect of a recent, largely misunderstood move by the Cabinet Office. When it announced plans to prevent any person or institution in receipt of government money from using those funds to argue (“lobby”, if you prefer) against official policy, this was widely interpreted as an attempt to silence unruly charities. As the minister Matthew Hancock put it, a clause to be inserted in new and renewed grant agreements would mean that “taxpayers won’t be made to foot the bill for political campaigning and political lobbying”.
But the move has wider and even more worrying ramifications – it could significantly censor scientific debate. Almost all scientists in the UK get some form of funding from the government, which is most commonly in terms of salary from universities or the NHS, but can also be specific grant funding from government research charities such as the Medical Research Council or the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Even more chilling is the potential impact on our leading scientific institutions, the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, both of which receive very significant amount of their funding from government. Will they no longer be able to review health and science policy if their findings might challenge government policy?
And who will decide what constitutes “lobbying” and is therefore banned and what is simply scientists talking about the implications of their research findings? Censorship would irreparably damage scientific enquiry and debate in the UK and make the country a much less desirable destination for scientists and scientific investment. It would also lead to the growth of US-style anti-science “thinktanks”, as described in Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s recent book Merchants of Doubt.