Silencing the Scientist: How the UK Ban on Lobbying is Still Unclear

April 26, 2016

The good news is that common sense and activism by the scientific community appear to have prevailed in the debate over the new anti-lobbying clause going into effect on 1 May in the UK. What looked to be a misguided move by the UK government to ban lobbying by groups receiving government funding, has been reconsidered at the last minute to allow research findings to be discussed with parliament, especially as they pertain to government policy, such as public health and the environment. Only three days ago, the clause would have stipulated that any research conducted with public funds could not be used to influence the work of government. From climate change to embryonic research, the aim of the Cabinet Office edict was to stop NGOs from lobbying politicians and Whitehall departments using the government’s own funds.

After its anti-lobbying plan was announced last February, the Cabinet Office was deluged with protests, which included a petition launched by Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy. Signed by more than 12,000 people, it urged that the anti-lobbying clause be dropped immediately.  “This [was] extremely worrying,” says Cambridge zoologist Professor William Sutherland. “The government already has a bad track record for not following good scientific advice.”  He goes on to say that under the ban, as it stood, there would have been “many more poor decisions being made by government for the simple reason that it will have starved itself of proper scientific advice.”

But the bad news is it’s not yet clear if the ban will be completely dropped from grant funding or selectively omitted from certain groups. The announcement, reported in the journal Nature, states that it’s possible scientists not funded by Business, Innovations and Skills (BIS) could still be subject to the gagging clause. Also subject to the ban are the UK’s numerous charities, which receive over 1 billion pounds yearly in public funds. Charities themselves are starting to implement science as a means of using evidenced-based research to support their missions. For instance, The Claremont Project in London’s Islington neighbourhood, has gathered data from its members that show a significant increase in quality of life issues for the elderly through the programs it runs.

What is the point of not being able to present that data to politicians in an attempt to better fund programs with positive public health outcomes? Even  conservative MP Sarah Wollaston who chairs the Commons Health Select Committee, posted on Twitter: “Ending charities ability to lobby ministers [would] have serious consequences for #publichealth. Balance already distorted in favour of industry.”

When the goal of publicly funding science, and anyone studying cause and effect issues, is to better understand how we can use the data to improve our lives, why would government choose not to listen to conclusions? And if government bans the opinions of publicly funded researchers, this leaves us with industry opinion, driven by profit motive and, perhaps, selective scientific conclusions. This is an issue to be watched and one to be questioned as we strive to work toward the best outcomes between evidence and policy. The Guardian is one of the sources following this issue.