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Editorial in the BMJ (titled 'The pursuit of ignorance')

23 Mar 2016

Dr Kat Smith (Reader in the Global Public Health Unit and SKAPE member) has (with colleagues, including the University of Edinburgh'€™s Jeff Collin) recently published an Editorial in the BMJ (titled 'The pursuit of ignorance') which reflects on the potential implications of the Cabinet Office's new '€˜anti-lobbying' clause for academic freedom and efforts to improve research-policy relations (http://www.bmj.com/content/352/bmj.i1446) .

The new clause, announced by Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock MP last month, is to be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements from May, forbids the use of government funds for lobbying. Kat and colleagues argue that this seems to conflict with the broader ‘research impact’ agenda and, specifically, the pursuit of public health goals, which often require ensuring policy makers are aware of the implications of research.

Two reports by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) appear to underlie the clause, both presenting sustained critiques of public health advocates and researchers, explain the authors. The IEA’s position is that only money raised through sources other than taxation should be used to influence government spending.  In the editorial, Kat and colleagues argue that, in effect, “this privileges private sector views, some of which clearly run counter to public health.”  The same point could be made in relation so climate change research and a wealth of other research areas – the fundamental point it that the clause seems to undermine efforts to encourage researchers to engage with policy makers and practitioners by allowing only those researchers who can demonstrate that they are not (directly or indirectly, via HEFCE, or RCUK funding) funded by the UK government.

Taking an example of University of Edinburgh research, led by Dr Mark Hellowell, that formed a REF2014 impact case study (http://impact.ref.ac.uk/casestudies2/refservice.svc/GetCaseStudyPDF/23980), the editorial goes on to outline the kind of ‘policy influencing’ work that might be prohibited (or at least constrained) by the new clause. In this example, which involved working to draw policymakers attention to the fact that research was demonstrating that NHS organisations with private finance initiative contracts had higher capital costs than those without such contracts, the purpose was explicitly to reduce costs to the public purse.  This contrasts with the suggestion from Hancock (who has close links to the IEA, as the editorial describes) and the IEA’s Christopher Snowden, who both appear to believe that those who receive government funding only ever lobby the government to request more public funds. 

On the back of the BMJ Editorial, which received some wider media coverage (e.g. http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/homenews/14348566.Charity__gagging__clause_could_impact_on_public_health__say_Scots_researchers/), the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has written to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Sajid Javid, to seek assurances that researchers will be exempted from the new clause (http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/science-technology/Correspondence/Chair-Business-Secretary-government-grant-conditions-and-lobbying-15-03-15-16.pdf). The Scottish Government has also clarified that it will not be inserting the clause into Scottish Government grants and that it is seeking clarification about impacts for Scotland