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Purdah guidelines and what they mean for scientists

22 May 2017

Director Dr Sarah Main summarises CaSE’s work over recent weeks in seeking clarity on purdah guidelines

There has been some disquiet in the research community about the purdah guidelines for this election. A number of individuals and institutions have raised concerns with CaSE that the guidelines appear to be being interpreted and disseminated to researchers in a more restrictive way in this election period than previously.

CaSE took a two-pronged approach, signing the Science Media Centre’s letter to the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, and contacting BEIS directly to seek clarification. The response was swift from both, with BEIS pointing to what they hoped would be helpful clarification in the response from Jeremy Heywood. Full copies of the letter and its response can be found below.

Jeremy Heywood’s letter does indeed set out clearly that, “the principles are not, and have never been about restricting commentary from independent academics” and that, “Research Council funded researchers wishing to comment during the election period should do so under their university affiliation rather than the Research Councils”.

However, a few grey areas remain.

Having looked into it, CaSE is aware of three sets of guidance currently in circulation, from the Cabinet Office, the Research Councils and Innovate UK, that each vary in the degree of restriction on researchers. This is confusing, particularly for organisations such as universities and research institutes that might feel they are subject to all three. Which should be taken as definitive for scientists and engineers?

Concern remains about the status of Research Council Institutes, such as the Babraham Institute or the British Antarctic Survey, with respect to the guidance. Scientists employed by Research Councils in these institutes are bound by public sector terms for at least some aspects of their employment. So should scientists in institutes who only have affiliation to that institute (and not to a university) be treated as if they are under the same obligations as a civil servant for the purposes of purdah? If that is the case, those with long-standing experience suggest it is a significant departure from previous custom and practice.

I think Jeremy Heywood’s letter gives three criteria to consider in the application of purdah to activity by scientists working under the auspices of Government:

1. Whether it is essential government business

2. Whether or not it is high profile

3. Whether or not it is politically controversial

While we in the scientific community would probably class expert contribution to discourse on the UK drought or on the impact of pesticides on bees as high profile, I suggest that the public would not, particularly during an election campaign. Therefore I think there is a reasonable case that such expert contributions by ‘public servant scientists’ are both essential government business, not high profile and not politically controversial and therefore permitted under purdah rules.

There will be time for reflection before the next purdah period, and I hope that Research Councils, Innovate UK and Research England under UK Research and Innovation will give thought to one clear set of guidance for all scientists, engineers and researchers that aides the community and the public in the application of the Cabinet Office purdah rules.

The full letter from the Science Media Centre:

Sir Jeremy Heywood
Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service
70 Whitehall
Dear Sir Jeremy,
We the undersigned write to seek urgent clarification around the application of ‘purdah’ to scientists. We cannot remember an election where purdah extended so far into the daily work of research-active scientists and we are extremely concerned that the public are being denied access to the best experts at the time they are most needed. We have seen examples of researchers declining to provide comments on a new study on climate change, scientists from several arm’s-length agencies and research council institutes nervous about talking proactively about the drought, and university researchers feeling unable to provide comment to journalists on the government’s draft UK air quality plan because of instruction from government that their membership of an independent Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) on air pollution made them subject to purdah.
We understand the basic principles of purdah and accept the need for civil servants to keep the airwaves free for electioneering and to avoid announcing investments or new initiatives that could sway voters. We do not believe however that purdah was ever intended to stop research-active scientists from commenting on breaking news or critiquing important new studies. These activities are an important part of the scientific process, are not political, and should not be interrupted by an election without good reason. Journalists will report on issues like drought, pollution and climate change irrespective of an election and it benefits nobody for the best experts to be removed from the public debates on these issues.
Many senior scientists and science communication officers believe that the guidance on purdah is confusing and is being applied in an ad hoc and arbitrary way which is not in the public interest.  We therefore seek explicit written clarification on the following points:

Purdah does not apply to scientists employed by universities. They should be free to speak to the media and the public, even if they are funded by a research council or they are a member of an independent SAC, as long as they comment with their university affiliation.

Research-active scientists in non-departmental bodies (such as scientists working in research council institutes) should not be restricted from commenting on new research or answering media enquiries about breaking science news.

We call for early clarification of the guidelines for the current general election, and for a full consultation and review on purdah rules directly afterwards. It is clear that there is widespread confusion and unease about purdah rules as applied to science and we believe that such a review would be in the public interest and warmly welcomed by the research community.
Yours sincerely
Science Media Centre
Association of British Science Writers
Royal Statistical Society
Royal Institution of Great Britain
British Pharmacological Society
Campaign for Science and Engineering
British Science Association
Association of Medical Research Charities
Sense about Science
Medical Journalists’ Association
The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication
Full Fact

Full response from the Cabinet Secretary:

Fiona Fox
Science Media Centre
215 Euston Road
19 May 2017

Dear Fiona

I am writing in response to your letter dated 17 May 2017, on the subject of pre-election guidance and its application to the scientific community.

The long-established principles underpinning the pre-election guidance are designed to maintain the impartiality of the Civil Service, ensure the appropriate use of official resources, and avoid competing with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public during the election campaign. It is therefore appropriate that public bodies are subject to restrictions on their public activity during this period of sensitivity. As such, staff members of NDPBs should not comment publicly on politically controversial matters, or proactively contribute to debates on high profile issues during this time.

However, the principles are not, and have never been about restricting commentary from independent academics. The guidance also makes clear that essential government business should continue.

It is for individual public bodies to apply the principles of the pre-election guidance within their organisations. Research Councils UK (RCUK) have produced their own supplementary guidelines, providing more specific advice about how the restrictions of this period affect their community. The RCUK guidelines make it clear that Research Council funded researchers wishing to comment during the election period should do so under
their university affiliation rather than the Research Councils. This is consistent with central guidance.

It is standard practice, after an election, for the Cabinet Office to reflect on how the election guidance has operated in practice, and we will be doing so this time round. I do not believe a wider review or consultation is required.

Jeremy Heywood