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Research councils: Independence once lost is hard to recover

Michael Gove is shaping up to be an unlikely champion for the environment. Many scientists have welcomed his recent announcement that the UK government will support further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and his promise that the UK will seek higher, not lower environmental standards after Brexit. Gove has also promised a new statutory body whose job it will be to uphold environmental standards. So far so good. However, Gove’s promise that the quango would be ‘independent of government’ left me doubtful.

It’s interesting that Gove felt the need to assure us that the agency would be independent – that suggests that he thinks that independence from government is important. I think it’s fair to assume that the purpose of setting up a body outside the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is that it will be deemed more effective if it sits at arm’s length from government, that it’s free to scrutinise government policy and is able to speak out publically when promises are not being met. A similar sentiment informed the setting up of previous government agencies including the Food Standards Agency (FSA). With public trust in government at a low ebb after the BSE debacle, the FSA was in part an acknowledgement by government that some clear blue water was needed between expert advice and government. Similarly, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) – now Public Health England (PHE) – emerged out of the ashes of the near collapse of a successful childhood vaccination campaign because many parents believed a maverick doctor over government public health messages. Both the FSA and the HPA were visibly independent in their early days. Sir John Krebs (now Lord), the first Chair of the FSA, was a well-respected and independent minded scientist, who has testified that he was able to resist attempts by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the Department of Health (DH) to interfere, because the agency’s independence was guaranteed by the Prime Minister. But few would describe either of these agencies as independent from government these days and their scientists are certainly not free to speak openly to the media when they are at odds with their government departments.

A couple of years ago, my friend Professor Bill Sutherland from Cambridge invited me to do a keynote at the annual British Ecological Society conference. Bill specifically asked me to focus on the communication of scientific evidence relating to policy and to touch on what I had written previously about restrictions on government scientists speaking to the media. I only used the word ‘gagged’ once in my talk, and indeed I think the process is much more subtle and complex than this phrase suggests. Nevertheless, at the end of the talk ecologists competing to tell me their own stories of being gagged surrounded me.

Scientists working inside agencies like Natural England, the Forestry Commission, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) and the Environment Agency reported that they are not allowed to speak to journalists without express permission from their parent government department, and that the permission is usually withheld or given too late. Many suggested that control from government has got worse in recent years.

Chris Smith, former Labour Minister and Chair of the Environment Agency, confirmed this tightening of the apron springs by government earlier this year in a piece for the Green Alliance Blog. In it, he described the loss of independence:

One of the responsibilities put in place in the original act which created the Environment Agency was the duty to provide impartial advice to the government about the state of the environment. Without fear or favour, the agency was charged with the role of telling it as it is, speaking the truth about what was happening to the environment, and the threats and challenges, even when it might be inconvenient.

“And we used to do that publicly. ….When the coalition government came in, however, all of that changed. It was made very clear to us that, whilst private impartial advice was still sought and still welcome, it should not under any circumstances be put into the public domain. It was up to ministers to decide what the public should be told, not up to us. And we did what we were told, we had no other option.”

This summer, this issue was investigated in an excellent ‘Costing the Earth’ by Tom Heap on Radio 4 which focused on the Environment Agency. It ended with an excruciating interview with the agency’s current chair in which she had to concede that there is an explicit rule that she and other staff are not free to speak openly about any concerns surrounding policy.

Therefore, if Michael Gove’s new agency is to be truly independent, it will be the only arm’s -length body that is.

None of this is to say that these agencies are not doing fantastic work. I am not qualified to judge their operational independence but the scientists we know seem to work well with them and have huge respect for the work they do. My point is about the lack of independent communication from these agencies. After many years of trying to get third party comments and run briefings with scientists at one of these agencies, I finally pleaded in despair for an explanation as to why it never seemed to happen. The equally exasperated communications manager blurted out that the last thing he needs is an angry call from number 10 because of something going wrong at an SMC press briefing.

Government communications staff have fascinating, important jobs and are often smart and skilled. But, they also have to be political and politicised. Their job is to ensure government messages “land” well and there are no nasty surprises for ministers. For government communications officers, positive announcements on science are seized on to give ministers good news stories and inconvenient findings are managed to minimise the damage. The dreaded ‘Grid’, which prevents announcements from different departments from clashing, is also used by special advisers in Number 10 and the Cabinet office to spot any stories that might not align well with government messaging. The latter might be shunted to inhospitable slots, terrible for press deadlines or timed to come out on the day of a major announcement that will guarantee it sinks without a trace. So far so normal. But government communications are inimical to independent science and someone really needs to keep saying that.

Which brings me, rather late in the day, to the main reason for writing this blog. As I write this, I am watching closely to see what will happen to the media teams and communications activities at the individual research councils (RCs). RCs have always been explicitly independent from government. They are funded by government but are not government agencies, their staff do not sign the civil service code, and the Haldane principle governing the seven councils enshrines the principle that government’s political goals are not mixed up with scientific decisions about which research is funded.

Now we have something new. We have UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) setting up inside government. This is for compelling reasons. As Paul Nurse explained when he proposed the idea to journalists at the SMC, this new organisation will bring science into the heart of government at a time when the need for the voice of science to be heard is greater than ever.

I accept that argument and in a week when the government has committed to increasing the science budget, there are encouraging signs that this voice is already being heard. But there could be a very serious and unforeseen downside. It is entirely possible that in bringing all the RCs closer into government the communications and media relations activities of the individual councils will start to become subordinate to government communications – in a way that has not happened before and is more akin to government agencies. I am seriously worried about this and not reassured by a variety of sources who report that press officers in RCs are feeling the hand of government communications more firmly on their shoulders than ever.

As previously mentioned, John Krebs has shown us that this does not have to be the case. But passivity is not an option. If Sir Mark Walport, our new GCSA Patrick Vallance, the Board of UKRI, and others in positions of leadership in science do not actively resist the politicisation of RC communications, we could sleep walk into a major loss of independence for UK science. The lessons of purdah are instructive here. Head of the UK Civil Service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, responded to our joint letter about purdah rules encroaching on independent researchers by stating: “the principles are not, and have never been about restricting commentary from independent academics”. Yet somehow, that has happened. No one in science wanted it to happen, but no one in science made enough of a stand to stop it.

When I marched for science this year, I did so with a placard saying: “If it’s not open it’s not science”. I know that is a principle that many in science subscribe to but we need to be more vigilant about changes that could compromise the openness and independence we all value. There are so many good things about UKRI and the move to give science more influence inside government. Gove appears to acknowledge the public benefit from organisations who are not only independent from government but also seen to be independent and that means they must be allowed to communicate without being drawn into the government communications apparatus.

Independence it seems is easy to lose, but once lost is hard to recover.

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