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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

UK Government forced to back down on plan to gag scientists

The Independent reports that the UK Government has been forced into an embarrassing climbdown over controversial plans that would have gagged academics and scientists from lobbying the Government on matters of public interest.

They say that proposals put forward by the Cabinet Office to stop organisations in receipt of Government funds from promoting changes to laws or regulations from next month have been abandoned:

Universities and research organisations warned the move would have had a chilling effect on scientific research and prevent academics from participating fully in public debate.

Such a ban, they argued, would prevent doctors from advocating a sugar tax or climate scientists from arguing for a more robust Government response to global warming.

A petition, calling for academics to be exempt from the ban, received nearly 20,000 signatories while astronomer Sir Martin Rees said it would be “far too damaging to allow this clause to proceed”.

Science Minister Jo Johnson announced on Monday that the Government was preparing to climb down and would exempt academic researchers from the ban – which was designed to prevent charities using public money to lobby for changes in public policy.

“The new clause in government grants is about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is properly spent on what was intended in the grant agreements,” Mr Johnson said.

“I am very aware of questions that have been raised about what this could mean for our research base and the principle of academic autonomy that is such a critical part of its strength.

“I am happy to confirm that it is not our intention for the Research Councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) or the National Academies to be covered by the clause. We are continuing to talk to the research community and will outline more detail by 1 May, when this clause takes effect.”

This u-turn is very welcome of course, but it illustrates very effectively how even straightforward proposals can have unintended consequences.

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