UK Scientists Chafe at Anti-Lobbying Rule

Last month, the British government announced what might seem like a relatively benign amendment: An anti-lobbying clause prohibiting recipients of national funding and grants from attempting to sway the government.

But for scientists and researchers in the UK, who rely on roughly more than $4 billion in government funded research grants, the clause has felt like a muzzle.

Researchers are normally encouraged to converse and consult with government agencies to facilitate good policymaking, often taking on investigations aimed at certain bills. But the “gagging clause,” as it’s been nicknamed in the press, could prevent this kind of interaction. In effect, critics say, it could completely divorce science and research from the formation of public policy.

The problem originates in the vague wording of the amendment. It prevents funding recipients from “activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties … or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.”

Though the bill has been called an anti-lobbying clause, “influence” is an ambiguous word, which could be interpreted to mean anything from serving on a government-sponsored committee, to having a quick consultation with a policymaker or simply responding to questions.

“I think it’s obvious from the background that it’s a case of cock-up rather than conspiracy,” said Bob Ward, is policy and communications director at the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “It’s just incompetent policymaking.”

The UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the branch of the government that manages most research grants, hasn’t spoken publicly about how the rule, which goes into effect May 1, will be interpreted.

To expedite answers, Ward is petitioning the UK government and parliament to exempt grants for academic research from the new law. As of writing, the petition is approaching 3,000 signatures; at 10,000 an official response will be required.

In addition, two other research consortiums — the campaign for Science and Engineering and the Campaign for Social Science — filed a joint letter highlighting the issues with the amendment.

The strange part here: The legislation comes in the wake of an increased effort in the UK to make scientists and academics more accessible to the public, and to make research a more active part of policymaking — a plan that seems to be paying off. As Nature reported, the most common impact of nearly 7,000 impact case studies was “informing government policy,” followed closely by “supporting Parliamentary scrutiny.”

Not only does prohibiting interactions between researchers and government undermine this campaign, it also leaves government open to the influence of private lobbying groups.

“The irony is very high,” said Ward.