Silencing scientists?

4 Mar 2016

In the last couple of weeks I have been viewing the lights of Cambridge from the top of the Gog Magog hills (well they pass for hills in Cambridgeshire). To explain, I drive over the hills whilst returning home from my golf club.

There are now two levels or layers of lights. The lower layer comprises the normal lights of a city: houses, flats, streetlights etc. The upper layer comprises red lights that mark the top of the large cranes on the many construction sites in and around the City. I do not know how many cranes there are but the effect of their lights at night is quite striking. Some have likened the skyline to that of Dubai during its rapid expansion.

I have often wondered what it must be like to operate such cranes. However, I will never find out because I am a wimp when it comes to heights. The overviews of the City must be great but of course to see the precise detail of a specific location you have to be at ground level.

I am becoming increasingly concerned that the views of those who work at the ground level of science and who know the nuances and details of the subject are becoming more and more pushed aside by those who have just an overview of the issues. This is a worrying trend and one which shows signs of getting worse.

Last year there was a missive from the Cabinet Office demanding that all civil servants (many scientists are civil servants) must seek prior permission from a minister to speak to the media. This feels like a restraint on scientists engaging pro-actively with topical controversies such as badger culling and gene editing. I realise that ministers have scientific commitbadgertees in order to inform decisions but there are, inevitably, many expert scientists who are excluded from this process.

There is now further concern that UK scientists may be prevented from arguing for changes in national legislation or policy if research grants are not exempted from a government ban on the use of public funds for political lobbying. This ban was announced in February and will be introduced in May. This prohibition could impact on University and Research Station staff who are receiving support from public funds. Much agricultural research is publically funded by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council). Does this mean that these scientists will not be able to take part in public debates on scientific issues relating to policy or to respond to public consultations in their areas of expertise?

At the moment there is confusion on this issue and the government department responsible seems unable to provide clarification. This has prompted a petition which many scientists are signing. I sincerely hope that it is not the government’s intention to gag scientific opinion and that clarification will protect the right of scientists to make their informed opinions widely known.

Without such clarification life for scientists will become very difficult because ‘lobbying’ is not easily defined. Nor is it easy to define a policy issue. For example, some scientists have commented that a recent paper stating that ‘organic’ milk is more nutritious for consumers is flawed. The paper compares ‘organic’ milk from grass-fed cows with ‘conventional’ milk. The flaw is that the comparison should have been between ‘conventional’ milk from grass-fed cows and ‘organic’ milk from grass-fed cows. It has been known for some time that grass-fed cows produce more nutritious milk: even I knew this!

The criticism of this paper is perhaps just scientific opinion rather than lobbying. However, organic production could be seen by some as part of government policy. Hence, the uncertainties of the boundaries between scientific opinion and lobbying would inevitably inhibit scientific comment and progress should the lobbying by scientists receiving public funds be banned. Let’s hope further clarification from government will prove that this concern is a storm in a teacup.