Writing to the Cabinet Secretary & Head of the Civil Service today, the SMC, Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), Royal Statistical Society, Royal Institution of Great Britain, British Pharmacological Society, Campaign for Science and Engineering, British Science Association, Association of Medical Research Charities, Sense about Science, Medical Journalists’ Association, The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication and Full Fact have come together to express our joint concern about the ambiguity surrounding purdah rules for scientists.
SMC Chief Executive Fiona Fox recently authored a blog illustrating the SMC’s concerns.
Below is our letter to Sir Jeremy Heywood, and his response.
Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary & Head of the Civil Service
Professor Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser
Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer
Professor Chris Whitty, DH Chief Scientific Adviser
Professor Ian Boyd, DEFRA Chief Scientific Adviser
Professor John Loughhead, BEIS Chief Scientific Adviser
18 May 2017
Dear Sir Jeremy,
We the undersigned write to seek urgent clarification around the application of ‘purdah’ to scientists. We cannot remember an election where purdah extended so far into the daily work of research-active scientists and we are extremely concerned that the public are being denied access to the best experts at the time they are most needed. We have seen examples of researchers declining to provide comments on a new study on climate change, scientists from several arm’s-length agencies and research council institutes nervous about talking proactively about the drought, and university researchers feeling unable to provide comment to journalists on the government’s draft UK air quality plan because of instruction from government that their membership of an independent Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) on air pollution made them subject to purdah.
We understand the basic principles of purdah and accept the need for civil servants to keep the airwaves free for electioneering and to avoid announcing investments or new initiatives that could sway voters. We do not believe however that purdah was ever intended to stop research-active scientists from commenting on breaking news or critiquing important new studies. These activities are an important part of the scientific process, are not political, and should not be interrupted by an election without good reason. Journalists will report on issues like drought, pollution and climate change irrespective of an election and it benefits nobody for the best experts to be removed from the public debates on these issues.
Many senior scientists and science communication officers believe that the guidance on purdah is confusing and is being applied in an ad hoc and arbitrary way which is not in the public interest. We therefore seek explicit written clarification on the following points:
We call for early clarification of the guidelines for the current general election, and for a full consultation and review on purdah rules directly afterwards. It is clear that there is widespread confusion and unease about purdah rules as applied to science and we believe that such a review would be in the public interest and warmly welcomed by the research community.
Science Media Centre
Association of British Science Writers
Royal Statistical Society
Royal Institution of Great Britain
British Pharmacological Society
Campaign for Science and Engineering
British Science Association
Association of Medical Research Charities
Sense about Science
Medical Journalists’ Association
The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication
The Physiological Society
Society for Applied Microbiology
19 May 2017
I am writing in response to your letter dated 17 May 2017, on the subject of pre-election guidance and its application to the scientific community.
The long-established principles underpinning the pre-election guidance are designed to maintain the impartiality of the Civil Service, ensure the appropriate use of official resources, and avoid competing with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public during the election campaign. It is therefore appropriate that public bodies are subject to restrictions on their public activity during this period of sensitivity. As such, staff members of NDPBs should not comment publicly on politically controversial matters, or proactively contribute to debates on high profile issues during this time.
However, the principles are not, and have never been about restricting commentary from independent academics. The guidance also makes clear that essential government business should continue.
It is for individual public bodies to apply the principles of the pre-election guidance within their organisations. Research Councils UK (RCUK) have produced their own supplementary guidelines, providing more specific advice about how the restrictions of this period affect their community. The RCUK guidelines make it clear that Research Council funded researchers wishing to comment during the election period should do so under their university affiliation rather than the Research Councils. This is consistent with central guidance.
It is standard practice, after an election, for the Cabinet Office to reflect on how the election guidance has operated in practice, and we will be doing so this time round. I do not believe a wider review or consultation is required.
If you have specific instances of where you feel the principles of the pre-election guidance have been improperly applied, I suggest that you contact Sue Gray, Director General, Propriety and Ethics in the Cabinet Office, who can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Science Media Centre then sent a response to Sir Jeremy’s reply.