By Fiona Fox
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.
Can someone please explain to me why science is covered by purdah? Despite the fact that purdah is a key feature of our democracy my guess is that most people have never heard of it and are unaware that they have less access to some scientists and experts during elections. Let me give you my rather self-serving description. It’s the arcane rule that kicks in every time we have an election which stops the SMC running long planned press briefings, means we can’t get comments on new research or breaking news from certain scientific organisations and leads previously rational people to behave oddly.
During the last general election the following three things happened to me because of purdah. The organisers of a scientific meeting on toxicology asked me to leave immediately after my talk because there were government scientists in the room; the head of a government research lab cancelled a coffee to discuss his institute becoming more open; and a senior scientist at a research council recused herself from speaking at an invite only meeting on reproducibility. And that was before the ‘no comment’ from government funded scientists and the cancelled press briefings. Purdah has only just started and the same stuff is happening. A scientist declined to provide a comment on a new study on climate change because he is paid by a research council, and anticipates a reprimand for commenting during an election – even though he works at a university. I had to send out an urgent note to scientists asking them not to share or tweet the link I had just sent them to a new film about animal research despite the fact that the link is already publicly available, because research councils (RCs) who would normally be keen to promote it are not able to do so under purdah. And a media briefing from an entirely independent
I should say here that I can see a perfectly reasonable case for purdah for public servants who work inside central or local government. Of course Defra and DH cannot carry on as normal making big policy announcements in the midst of a general election and should ‘not publish any material which in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party’. So far so sensible. Nor actually would we expect ALBs like PHE or NICE to proceed as normal. But why do the research councils fall under government purdah rules? I am aware that they are government funded but I’ve always seen the RCs as independent from government. And I’ve always seen RC-funded scientists as another step removed. I gather from one scientist who worked for many years at an MRC institute that scientists were not covered by purdah until a change of policy about 10 years ago.
I have tried to clarify the rules on purdah and I am instantly sympathetic to any government scientist trying to understand exactly how these rules apply to them. One thing I did learn is that purdah is not all about political control. It’s partly about clearing the airwaves for politicians of all parties to fight the election without too many distractions:
“The general principle governing communication activities during a General election is to do everything possible to avoid competition with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public.”
Again this sounds reasonable to me when applied to government departments and some of the activities of arm’s-length bodies. But less so when it comes to science. Why is it okay for governments to interfere with the process of communicating science to make way for electioneering? Why should the public not get access to new evidence on issues in the public interest? And of course it is also about politics:
“Special care must be taken during the course of an election since material produced with complete impartiality, which would be accepted as objective in ordinary times, may generate criticism during an election period when feelings are running high.”
Herein lies the problem. If even neutral objective facts can be politicised during elections, then this advice becomes almost impossible to navigate and I imagine it’s much easier to say nothing. And government guidance on rules does not help: “business-as-usual communications may continue but only if essential”, which begs the question what is business as usual and what is ‘essential’?
“If a tweet, press release, etc. must be issued during the pre-election period, it must be purely factual and neutral and must not be a new announcement.” Which then begs the question what constitutes ‘factual and neutral’ and who will decide? (And why would anyone bother putting out a press release about something which is not new?)
One seasoned ALB communications officer told me this:
“It is up to arm’s-length bodies as to how they conduct themselves, but unclear from the official government guidance what differences there are between what civil servants and departments on the one hand, and ALBs on the other can do.
Often there is a whole chain of ineptitude whereby some ALBs get on with it, make a decision that there is nothing to worry about. Often no one notices and it’s fine. But sometimes sponsor branches (the departments in government departments that are the official conduit between ALBs and the departments) find out, disapprove and you end up with a bollocking from them. So now the etiquette is to always ask – they invariably say no.”
Another senior communications officer I spoke to said she believes purdah is imposed by civil servants, “who are scared something might get said or tweeted that would embarrass a minister or be used in some political way”.
Compounding the lack of clarity is the issue of self-censorship and overly cautious interpretation of rules. Rather than testing rules or making judgements which bend the stick in favour of openness some will go to great lengths to avoid the risk of a confrontation with government. Many press officers push back on seemingly arbitrary guidance only to find their risk-averse senior managers happy to duck behind the rules uncritically. As one communications manager said: “it would help if senior people were more confident about going about their ‘business as usual’ and stop being overly paranoid that Malcolm Tucker is round every corner”.
I hope I am not coming over as an irritating purist sitting in judgement from the comfort of a body beyond the reach of government control. I accept the basic principle of restrictions on government agencies during elections, and some agencies report rational sensible discussion with their parent department. Nor am I arguing it does real damage to science. The SMC can always find other academics to speak or scientists can speak with different hats on. But there will be cases where the best experts in the country on a topic of public interest are bound by the rules of purdah – if they can’t speak, the public really will lose out.
Of course judgement is needed and I can think of no-one I would trust more to make sensible judgements than senior communications officers in research councils and other science based ALBs. Of course if one of them is about to publish a report on the weekend effect in the NHS or the badger cull or on government failings on air pollution I can see a case for delaying this until after a period in which all news is politicised. But surely government can rely on RCs to use their independence wisely and make reasoned and intelligent decisions about what is appropriate for election time.
All of us affected directly or indirectly by purdah should accept reasonable restrictions while challenging the others. There is an argument that the public need maximum access to the best quality science and evidence during elections and restricting that access should be justified on reasonable grounds.
Or maybe a few more people should do as one former head of an ALB once advised, start asking for forgiveness afterwards not permission in advance. My bet is that if RCs were bolder but applied their characteristic wisdom and judgement there would be very little forgiveness to be sought. I marched for science last week with a placard that said ‘If it’s not open it’s not science’. It just feels like the bar for interfering with the communication of science and evidence to the wider public ought to be a lot higher than it is. Maybe I’m wrong…doubtless you’ll tell me if I am. Unless of course you are under purdah.