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Is Academic Research in the U.K. About to Die Off?

New rules that go into effect in May could prevent scientists from discussing their work with Parliament, public-health researchers say.
The Houses Of Parliament, circa 1860. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Houses Of Parliament, circa 1860. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Academics in the United Kingdom have been up in arms since early February, when the government announced that any grant money it provides can't be used for lobbying purposes. As reasonable as that might seem on the surface, a team of researchers argues in the BMJ, it could also be a serious threat to public health if it prevents publicly funded scientists—as opposed to private commercial interests—from bringing their findings to the attention of Parliament.

Ostensibly, the new rules are meant to prevent money from being "wasted on the farce of government lobbying government," minister for the cabinet office Matthew Hancock said in a statement announcing the rules. The rules and implementation guidelines, which require that grant applicants include an anti-lobbying clause (except in special, pre-approved cases), make no specific reference to academic research. The guidelines make an attempt to differentiate lobbying from political speech:

For example, a qualification could apply when a grant is being used to fund research that could result in recommendations that challenge existing government policy. However, this grant recipient would not be permitted to use this same grant funding to run any activities that involve lobbying government.

Similarly it is not the intention to restrict the creative activities of an organisation. Artistic activities that could be interpreted to challenge government should be qualified as permissible use of funds. However using the same grant to fund direct lobbying of government by artistic organisations through other channels is not permitted.

But that's not good enough, argue Katherine Smith, a reader in the University of Edinburgh's School of Social and Political Science, and her colleagues. "U.K. academics now have explicit incentives to demonstrate the impact of their research beyond academia," they write, just as scientists in the United States are increasingly called on to demonstrate the practical value of their work, and funding agencies including the National Science Foundation require researchers to include public outreach components in their funding proposals. Although it's unclear how the rule will be used in practice—it goes into effect this May—it could be used to restrict what academics say based on government-funded research, the authors argue.

In the realm of public health, Smith and her colleagues point to a number of examples of important research that the new rule could prevent, including a study that suggested private contractors working with the National Health Service were spending more than others on capital costs. The researchers on that project worked closely with Parliament "to ensure that the research has informed legislative opinion and impacted on its decision-making," efforts that could be interpreted as lobbying. Other projects that could be limited include efforts to curb smoking and alcohol use in economically deprived neighborhoods, and health and social research funded through the U.K.'s What Works program.

"The need to improve the use of scientific evidence in policy making is clear; this clause limits the ability of government funded researchers to help achieve this, privileging those working to influence policy on behalf of commercial interests," the researchers write.


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