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strong voice sounds great – but will we all hear it?

By Fiona Fox

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

I had not paid much attention to the detail of the Higher Education and Research Bill, which proposes replacing the seven research councils with a single body called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), until last week when a strongly-worded Nature editorial issued a call to scientists to oppose it saying “the bill rips up an 800-year-old settlement between the nation’s scholars and the state. It opens the door to unacceptable political interference. It must be resisted.”

But it was another section of the editorial that caught my eye:

“Organizations representing scientists, along with pressure groups such as the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London, have largely maintained public silence. That is understandable to an extent, because they are used to having a positive relationship with ministers and are more experienced at advocating for their causes in private meetings. But a government that is determined to have its way needs to be dealt with differently. It needs to be confronted in public.”

I have to say I don’t recognise that description. In my experience CaSE and the Royal Society are good at understanding that you need to do both private and public lobbying to influence government policy. Few ministers or spads will ever admit this (they tell you the opposite) but everyone knows that a bit of media and public pressure often opens doors and oils the wheels of good policy-making.

But where Nature was right, I think, is that discussions about this particular bill seem to have taken place below the radar of many, even those science journalists who take an interest in such issues. So I sent a Friday afternoon email to a bunch of people in the scientific community. What became instantly clear was that there are a lot of strong feelings about this bill and within a few days I had a media briefing sorted, with Martin Rees and Stephen Curry arguing against and Paul Nurse and Ottoline Leyser arguing for. Except of course that it was a much more nuanced discussion than that.

All speakers seemed to agree on what science needs – a  stronger voice in government which in the long-term will help reverse what Paul Nurse calls the ‘pitiful’ underfunding of science over many years, ensure that science gets what it needs from the Brexit arrangements and reduce government interference in research councils (what John Krebs refers to as ‘pet projects’).

Paul Nurse and Ottoline Leyser believe these shared goals are best delivered by aspects of the bill. Martin Rees thinks we can achieve them without radical new laws and that now is a bad time to start such a fundamental restructure of science. Stephen Curry worries that we risk achieving some desirable goals at the price of sacrificing long-held and sacred principles about the autonomy of universities to decide what courses to teach and what research to do.

I enjoyed the briefing and felt all speakers made good points. But I was left with one big question. What makes us all so sure that that the new head of UKRI will be a strong voice for science inside government? Or to put it another way – what do we actually mean by a strong voice for science inside government? Do we mean a strong independent voice that will only ever be heard inside the corridors of power? Or do we mean a strong independent voice that will be heard by everyone, politicians and public alike? How can those of us outside of government assess whether a voice is independent – or being listened to at all – if we never get to hear it?

I say this as someone who has spent years trying to challenge the silencing of government scientists in the UK and the controls placed on independent scientists who happen to do a piece of work for government. For many the words ‘closer to government’ are seductive meaning more influence and a better deal for science. For me they sound a very different note – raising all my fears of governments’ penchants for controlling messages and communication.

Of course I understand the benefits of having the ear of ministers and that may be easier on the inside. But I am less convinced that governments generally hold free-speaking, independent-minded scientists in high esteem. A BIS insider once told me a hilarious story about the wrath of a minister when Colin Blakemore, then the outspoken head of the MRC, said something in public to annoy him. Stomping around the corridors of Whitehall he demanded to know how Blakemore could be sacked. He was informed regretfully by his mandarins that as head of an arm’s length body it was not quite that easy. David Nutt was not quite so lucky when as chair of the government’s drugs advisory body he spoke publicly about evidence that contradicted government drugs policy, and David King, a former CSA, has talked about the reaction from ministers to his famous claim that climate change is a greater threat than terrorism. It was made clear that he could get away with such a statement…but only once!

In the last two years the SMC has fought hard against two new government rulings that have had a chilling effect on scientists who speak publicly, including the demand that all civil servants must seek ministerial permission before speaking to journalists and the anti-lobbying clause which threatened to cut government funding from academics who used it to try to influence government policy. Luckily the latter has been shelved because of widespread protest but the recent memory of ministers and officials sitting in rooms working out how to introduce new ways to restrict the freedoms of publicly funded experts is hardly reassuring.

In a piece on his concerns about the new bill John Krebs got to the heart of the matter: “Whether or not UKRI becomes a strong voice for science will depend on who is running it and how ministers respond.” I agree. I am not against science getting a stronger voice in government, but whether that voice will be used in an independent way that will deliver more autonomy for the research agenda will surely depend on who it is.

Paul Nurse has been that kind of independent voice. I have seen him at close quarters refusing to do government bidding and standing up to government spads. But as I have recounted in previous blogs I have plenty of examples of senior scientists who have put their need to influence policy makers from the inside above the need for their independent voice to be heard.

My other question/worry is about what happens to the media relations officers of the individual research councils in this restructure. Might a ‘stronger voice’ in government also herald a stronger voice for government communications staff in the media relations activities of individual research councils? In my view that would be a disaster for science. Government communications culture has always favoured moving staff to different patches regularly and in my 14 years at the SMC I have only seen departments (even science-based ones) recruit press officers with a science specialism on a handful of occasions. That’s fine; after all a government communications person is just that and not a science press officer. But there is huge strength in having specialist science press officers at each research council. At their best these staff know their patch and their funded research intimately, the kind of knowledge that is undoubtedly directly linked to good quality media coverage of their research. Government communications revolves around ‘lines’ on issues and uber-control of every announcement. That’s fine too. But science communication is completely different – science needs to be presented openly and clearly and revolves around the publication process not the government ‘grid’. I have no strong views about how the research councils are re-organised but I hope that a strong voice in government is built on guarantees that protect the autonomy and specialism of some of the best science press officers in the UK.

In the end I remain neutral on whether this bill with the kind of amendments that the Royal Society and CaSE are fighting for is a good way to achieve the scientific community’s goals. But I do think all of us ought to care about it and discuss it in public. For me, the verdict will come when we find out whether a ‘strong voice for science’ is one that we can actually hear outside the corridors of power.

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