Scientists in the UK are about to lose their chance to speak out against the government

That’s one way to stop a debate.
That’s one way to stop a debate.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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Many scientists in the UK are about to lose their chance to speak out against the government on important issues—from climate change to genetically modified embryos.

The ruling is the side effect of a clause that the British government is introducing on May 1, which would mean researchers receiving government funding will not be allowed to use the results of their work to lobby for changes to laws or regulations.

The clause to be inserted into grant agreements states:

The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure: Payments that support 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.

Its aim is to stop non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from using government funds to lobby politicians. However, its sweeping wording means that its restrictions will apply to researchers at universities and institutes that depend on government money—the major source of funding for research.

The clause was first highlighted by the Guardian in February. At the time the government reassured researchers that it would add an exemption to allow scientists to take part in policy debates. However, no such changes have been made in the last two months.

Many scientists fear that the clause is an attack on academic freedom. But Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a lobbying group, says, “I am hopeful that the government will add the necessary exemption before the clause is implemented in the next two weeks.”

A petition to stop the anti-lobbying clause launched by Bob Ward of the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy in February has attracted more than 14,000 signatures.

Last week, Ward followed up his petition with a letter to the minister for the Cabinet Office: “I urge you to announce, without delay, that universities and research institutes will be exempt from the new anti-lobbying clause.” The minister hasn’t yet replied.

A government spokesperson told Quartz, “These measures are about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is properly spent on what was intended as outlined in the grant agreements. We are discussing with the research community what clarification may be necessary to ensure that research is not adversely affected in any way.”