11 March 2016

Rules against lobbying government threaten advice on science

The UK government plans to make it illegal for learned societies to spend public money to give it unbiased expert advice.

The mission of the Royal Society, the UK's leading scientific body, is “to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity”. As a part of this mission one of its priorities is “Providing scientific advice for policy”. If the government has its way, that priority will bite the dust.

The government thinks that anyone who takes taxpayers' money should be banned from “lobbying” government and Parliament. You can read the bald facts here: Government announces new clause to be inserted into grant agreements. This says that “Organisations receiving government grants will be banned from using these taxpayer funds to lobby government and Parliament.” To this end:
“A new clause to be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements will make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people’s lives and good causes, rather than lobbying for new regulation or using taxpayers’ money to lobby for more government funding.”
There is just one problem for the research community and the likes of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), another body with a remit to advise government, grants could include the money that they receive from government to do the work that is their raison d’etre.

As its website puts it:
“The Royal Society receives a grant from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). This supports work on scientific excellence and innovation, science and mathematics education, international activities and science communication activities.”
In 2015/16, BIS gave the RS £47.101 million. The latest accounts for the RAE (pdf file), for the year ending 31 March 2015, show that it received £13.1 million from BIS.

Like the RS, the RAE, the RS's engineering equivalent, spends some of this money collecting and presenting advice to government. As the RAE puts it: “The Academy undertakes a range of activities to ensure that engineering is at the heart of policy-making, providing authoritative, impartial advice and expertise.”

All of this could well fall foul of the proposed wording in grants agreements issued under the new regime. This would rule out:
“Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.”
Bang goes all that work on impartial, advice.

The RS and RAE sometimes work together in their roles as advisors. For example, in July 2015 they put together their Response to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into the environmental risks of fracking. What is the point of that study if its does not “influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties”.

Sometimes the government even asks these bodies for help. For example, in 2014, the then Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, asked Dame Ann Dowling DBE FREng FRS, and now the President of the RAE, “to lead a review examining how government can support the development of more effective collaborations between businesses and university researchers in the UK”. Could a successor do the same if it meant urging the Academy to break the law?

In recent years, the RAE has also opined on:
  • Innovate UK’s integration with Research UK
  • Higher education: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice
  • Relationship between EU membership and UK science
  • the Nurse Review of Research Councils
  • Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy
  • Science and Innovation Strategy
  • Emerging technologies
For its part, in recent times the Royal Society has published advice on:
  • EU regulation of the life sciences
  • Innovate UK’s integration with Research UK
  • The global humanitarian system
  • Purpose and quality of education in England
It also wrote a “Letter to the Rt Hon Sir Stephen Sedley regarding the delayed publication or withholding of government research”.
It is hard to see how either body could have written on subjects like those without running the risk of being accused of trying to “lobby government and Parliament”. Isn’t that the whole point?

And what will the government’s lawyers say about the comments of the RS and RAE, along with the Academy of Medical Sciences and the British Academy, two further recipients of government grants, on party manifestos at election time? These bodies “urge the next government to strengthen public investment in research and innovation”.

Even though they even handedly say that they are “pleased to see that four of the five manifestos make commitments in this area”, that statement might well provoke a slap over the wrists under the proposed law. What are these bodies doing sticking their noses into our manifestos?

Petition position

The research community itself fears that the same new law would hit anyone who receives a grant from a Research Council, which is government money after all, without also falling foul of the proposed new law. That is why some aggrieved researchers have promulgated one of those petitions to parliament.

This petition, which may itself to have benefited from government grants to pay the individuals who launched it, warns:
“The Cabinet Office has announced that a new ‘anti-lobbying’ clause will be included in all Government grants from May 2016. This is an attack on academic freedom as it would stop grants for university research being used to influence policy-makers. It is bad for the public interest and democracy.”
The petition then points out that the proposed ‘no lobbying with our cash’ law “does not mention that Government grants for research in universities and research institutes would be covered by the new clause”. It then goes on to say that “The Government should ensure that grants from the higher education funding councils and research councils to support research are exempt from this new clause.”

The petition does not address the issue of organisations that hand out that money. But they also need protection from this asinine edict.

Corridors of powerlessness

Organisations like the RS and RAE don’t jump up and down in public  or start petitions when dodgy legislation threatens their livelihood. That would look too much like lobbying. Instead they quietly go into ‘corridors of power mode’, as one president of the RS described it to me long ago. Sadly, it seems that those behind-the-scenes mutterings have fallen on deaf ears in Whitehall.

If anything, the explanation of how the new rules will work confirm the fears of the organisations involved. The notes pose the question: “Should the clause be included for all types of grant recipient – e.g. public sector organisations and individuals?” The answer is clear: “Yes, the presumption is that this clause is always included.”

The notes do go on to say “Grant recipients are still free to engage in lobbying but should not fund this sort of activity from government grants unless it is specifically part of the terms of the grant itself.” But that would eliminate much of the work of the national academies. Unlike the charities that raise money from the public, they don’t have chuggers with their clipboards accosting shoppers on the high streets, or call centres harassing charitable old people and urging them to hand over their savings.

Sock puppets

There are, as yet, no plans to exempt researchers or the organisations that represent them from the new regime. So they will sit alongside what the government’s announcement, citing the Institute of Economic Affairs, calls “so-called ‘sock puppets’”.

At one stage there was much talk in Whitehall and Westminster of a need for ‘evidence based policy’. In other words, if you want to change the way in which the NHS works, for example, you first analyse the issue, gathering the evidence and then trying to devise policies that will bring about the desired effects. In its plans to make the NHS a “24-7” operation, the current government seems to have turned that on its head. It now prefers ‘policy based evidence’. "Here’s what we want to do, go and find the evidence to prove that it makes sense."

Perhaps this is why the government refuses to make an exception in the new grant wording for research and the bodies that promote it. It does not want those pesky national academies offering advice that could make policies look even more daft and ill considered than they now do. Who needs input from researchers and experts who actually know what they are talking about when you can listen to all those political think tanks that exist purely to tell you what to do?

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