Writing to the minister for the Cabinet Office today, the SMC, Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) and Stempra have come together in an unprecedented way to express our joint concern about a recent change to the Civil Service Code. The change, announced in a letter to research councils and other scientific institutions around the UK by Sir Jeremy Heywood on 16 March, alerts people to an amendment to the Civil Service Code which requires all civil servants to seek ministerial authorisation for “any contact with the media in an official capacity”.
Thousands of publicly funded research scientists in the UK are effectively civil servants and are required to sign the Civil Service Code even though they work outside of Whitehall, for arm’s length agencies. We and others hope that this new amendment, already put into the Code, was not intended for these scientists. However without clarification, we fear this move will have a chilling effect on many scientists who are already wary of speaking to journalists on some of the most important science stories of our times.
Below is our letter to Francis Maude, and his response.
Rt Hon Francis Maude MP
Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary & Head of the Civil Service
Mr Simon Claydon, Deputy Director Civil Service Workforce Reform
Professor Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser
Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer
Professor Robin Grimes, FCO Chief Scientific Adviser
Professor Ian Boyd, Defra Chief Scientific Adviser
Professor John Loughhead, DECC Chief Scientific Adviser
27 March 2015
Dear Mr Francis Maude,
We write to express our deep concern about the recently announced revision of the Civil Service Code that requires all civil servants to seek ministerial authorisation for any contact with the media. We fear that this change will prevent scientists who are employed at public expense from responding to the needs of journalists – certainly within the tight timeframes required. We believe this will have a negative impact on the public understanding of science and the quality of the public discourse on some of the most important and contentious issues of our times. We urge the government to think again about this policy and its unintended and undesirable consequences.
Many publicly funded scientific researchers working in arm’s length bodies are required to sign up to the Civil Service Code. This change has now left them and the journalists and science press officers who work closely with them fearful that they are unable to speak to the media about their science without prior permission from ministers. Many of these scientists carry out research on issues of profound public interest and concern. Many also work on the brilliant UK research of which the government is rightly proud. Reports from our sister organisations in Canada reveal that a similar change there has had a negative effect on the ability of state-funded scientists to communicate their work, and hence demonstrate its value, and to be held accountable for that research by journalists and the public.
In the past, government scientists and their institutes were wary of dealing with the national news media and fearful of being treated critically by journalists simply because of their ‘government’ label. This suspicion about the independence of government researchers undermined their standing as scientists and cast doubt on the quality of scientific evidence and advice to government. However in recent years, efforts by press officers, the Science Media Centre and science journalists have seen more media engagement, growing respect for government scientists and hence more confidence in the advisory process. Government researchers have been playing an increasingly important role in communicating their expertise to the wider public and have been seen to be more open to journalistic scrutiny.
We fear that this new directive, if implemented without exceptions for scientists, will deny the public access to the evidence and the opinions of thousands of publicly funded scientists and will be a huge set-back for those who have striven so hard for greater openness and engagement.
We are not, of course, objecting to the normal rules for pre-election purdah, and we are not arguing that any civil servants should be free to express party political views. Our concern is that this change threatens to suppress the important and highly valued contribution that government scientists can and should make to media coverage of science. The role of publicly-funded researchers in the media is an important part of the recognition by the scientific community of its responsibility to communicate with the public about scientific evidence on important issues of general concern. That culture change has been encouraged by a long line of science ministers including Lord Sainsbury, Lord Drayson and David Willetts, as well as all the recent government chief scientific advisers.
Some five years ago, under the leadership of Lord Drayson (then science minister) and Sir John Beddington (then government chief scientific adviser), the Code of Practice on Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC) was revised to affirm the right of scientists who advise government to communicate their scientific opinions publicly, and this right was incorporated into the Ministerial Code.
The essential principles listed are that:
While these revisions of CoPSAC apply to independent scientists advising government, they surely capture a central principle – that government respects and defends the right and duty of scientists to provide the general public with evidence and expertise.
The UK government should be proud of the role the scientific community now plays in better informing public debate and responding to questions posed to science that were often left unanswered in the past. We have come a long way since the bad old days of the late 1990s where many scientists inside and outside of government were unwilling or unable to engage with the media on such important issues as GM crops, the MMR vaccine and animal research, with profound implications for the quality of media and public debate on those issues, and considerable cost to the government in dealing with misinformation and distrust. In contrast we can today point to debates in the media on similar topics from climate change to mitochondrial donation to fracking, in which scientists have stepped up to the plate and, have enabled some of the best science journalists in the world to deliver balanced, accurate and measured reporting.
We call on you, and all those in government who care about the quality of public debate on science, to think again about this change, and at the very least to issue a clarification exempting scientists from this proscription.
Fiona Fox OBE, Chief Executive, Science Media Centre
Martin Ince, President, Association of British Science Writers
Sir Colin Blakemore, Honorary President, Association of British Science Writers
Dr Ed Sykes, Chair, Stempra
27 April 2015
Dear Ms Fox,
Thank you for your email of 27 March expressing your concerns about the recent change to the Civil Service Code requiring civil servants to obtain Ministerial authorisation for contact with the media.
First of all I would like to be absolutely clear that the Government strongly values the contribution government scientists make to the media coverage of science. The recent clarification to the Civil Service Code is not in any way intended to change this. Although it is for individual Secretaries of State to determine how they wish to apply the provision and exemptions for areas of activity within their respective Departments, I would not envisage the provision to have any detrimental impact on the way that government scientists currently engage with the media about their expert subjects. Indeed, public engagement on scientific issues is vital for our innovative and high tech economy. In areas where government scientists are able to contribute their scientific expertise to the dialogue, this is encouraged by the government.
In addition, the Government clarified its position on the role of scientific advisers in its 2014 response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report on Communicating Climate Science. “The primary role of scientific advisers to Government is to provide science and engineering advice to inform the policy-making process. Communicating issues such as climate science to a wider audience is therefore not their primary purpose and any public communication they do undertake will be in accordance with their responsibilities as civil servants. However, because of their position, Government scientific advisers have significant standing, independence and authority which provides both a platform and implicit responsibility for communication of scientific issues. Many scientific advisers do undertake public engagement on scientific issues and view it as an important part of their role.
I would like to reassure you that the Government is strongly committed to increasing transparency and openness, and is in full support of government scientists’ efforts in that regard. In light of comments about the recent change, the Government is currently consulting on two further changes to the Code. These are to make it explicit that civil servants should be as open and transparent as possible with Parliament and the public, and to ensure it is up front in the Code that the new provision foes not, in any way, prevent civil servants from exercising their rights under the whistleblowing legislation (the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998). The consultation will end on 30 April and I would welcome your views on these changes.
Finally, as a point of clarification, public servants in non-departmental public bodies (such as the Research Councils, for example) are not bound by the Civil Service Code. They are accountable to the Board of their organisation and have their own Code of Conduct. If they new provision were introduced into their Code of Conduct it would therefore specify that authorisation for contact with the media would need to be sought from the Board. However, as in the case of Government Departments, I would not expect the introduction of this to affect any public engagement by government scientists.