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Government backtracks on plans to gag grant recipients from public interest debates

3 min read

20 April 2016

Former editor

Having outlined policy effectively meaning academics and scientists who had received public funding would not be able to voice comments relating to current affairs, Jo Johnson has revealed an embarrassing u-turn.

The universities and science minister said that the new clause was about making sure “taxpayers’ money is properly spent” on what it was intended in the grants agreement.

“I have been talking to the research community and working hard with colleagues in government to determine what clarification may be necessary to ensure that research is not adversely affected in any way,” Johnson added.

“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.

The outcry, which saw 20,000 signatures added to a petition, related to new regulation stipulating organisations which have secured government funds would be prevented from promoting changes to laws or regulations.

It is believed the policy was first tabled to stop non-governmental organisations from lobbing politicians and specific departments if government funds were being used.

Speaking to The Guardian, Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Centre, said: “Politicians don’t have to agree with scientists, but does anyone believe we will make better decisions without hearing what the evidence says on flooding, climate change, statins and e-cigarettes?”

Bob Ward, the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: “I do not believe that the government meant for the ‘anti-lobbying’ clause to apply to grants for researchers in universities and research institutes, and I am glad that the Cabinet Office has indicated that it will do the right thing.

“I hope that the exemption will apply not just to grants from the higher education funding councils and research councils, but also to grants from government departments for research. Without the exemption, the clause would forbid researchers from using government grants to attempt to influence policy-making. Such a restriction would be bad for policy-making, bad for the public interest and bad for democracy.”

While academics and scientists will be exempt from the gagging order, it is not clear whether other organisations such as charities will have such freedom.

Our sister title, Business Advice, had a close look at the government’s reform to grants funding.