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Public benefit from publicly funded research is at risk

Posted by on February 26, 2016

Opinion piece by Dr Laura Bellingan FRSB, director of science policy at the Royal Society of Biology

Some years ago in a small survey I asked researchers whether they considered themselves public servants – about 75% of those in receipt of public (research council or academy) funding did, although their appointments were at universities and other academic institutions and often on contract. About a similar proportion also considered publication of a paper to be a public communication of it! Whatever the hits and misses of this broad Q&A I have always found a strong line of sentiment among biology researchers with government grants that their outputs should serve the public good (and ideally change the world). In many ways it is at the heart of a profession that it should speak out about its knowledge; and to whom more appropriate to speak than parliament and governments!

This is just one reason why it would be so worrying if the current proposed guidelines from the Cabinet Office prohibited publicly funded researchers from lobbying parliament, government, political parties or their funders about implications of their work that affect funding, legislation or regulation. The proposals would require a specific, ministerially-agreed exception or explicit fundraising for the lobbying activity. We all think carefully about the differences between lobbying, advocacy, campaigning and advising and although the margins can be fuzzy one thing is certain – having to jump through high administrative hoops before advising and advocating for the implications of research in case it falls foul of a lobbying label will stifle a huge proportion of healthy and beneficial activity. I believe it could be detrimental to the formation of robust public policy and hugely de-motivating for the research profession.

I’m concerned that we really need to emphasise the importance of not just evidence informed policy making but well-informed policy making; that should be robustly-evidenced and appropriately challenged by the very people funded by the public purse to increase the relevant sum of knowledge. If the publicly funded researchers are inhibited from speaking out the only audible lobbying will be from private sources and this is neither in the public’s interest nor a good return on their investment. How the gathering of evidence and opinion is conducted affects the quality and content of what can be heard. We have raised concern that recent public consultations of short duration negatively impact our ability to respond; we have seen the Civil Service Code alterations place restrictions and cause confusion about public communication by scientists; and now these proposed contractual arrangements affecting public grants – is the need for diverse evidence falling off the regulators’ priority list? Or have they not made it sufficiently clear that academic research grants are not within scope of the prohibition? I do hope it is the latter!

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