Censorship of Government Scientists Spreads to the United Kingdom

March 31, 2015 | 7:00 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

British scientists are pushing back strongly against a move by the UK government to control how government scientists communicate their research with the public. This is a very troubling development that is bad for science and bad for the public interest. The news was reported on Friday in the Guardian and Science.

The new language, added to the Civil Service Code, is as follows:

All contacts with the media should be authorised in advance by the relevant Minister unless a specific delegation or dispensation has been agreed which may be for blocks of posts or areas of activities. The Civil Service Code applies to all such contacts.  Civil Servants must at all times observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks.

Truth and science cartoon

Policies that prevent scientists from publicly sharing their research results and scientific opinions make it more difficult for governments to make decisions based on science and for the public to hold governments accountable.

Increasing control over scientists by political actors makes it much easier for the government to censor scientists or manipulate scientific information that is inconvenient to the policy goals of politicians. The power grab is anti-democratic and anti-science, and should be vigorously resisted by those who want to support the future of the British scientific enterprise.

British science advocates rightly recognized that this move throws the door wide open to political control of the speech of government scientists. The UK Science Media Centre joined the Association of British Science Writers and Stempra, a network of science public relations officers, on a letter urging the new language to be removed.
“We fear that this change will prevent scientists who are employed at public expense from responding to the needs of journalists—certainly within the tight timeframes required,” they wrote. “We believe this will have a negative impact on the public understanding of science and the quality of the public discourse on some of the most important and contentious issues of our times.”

This smacks of past efforts by the U.S. government to constrain the speech of its scientific personnel. New controls in U.S. federal agencies in the 2000s led to censorship of NASA scientists on climate change, USDA scientists on threats to public health from industrial hog operations, and EPA scientists on air pollution—and countless others.

After President Obama pledged to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking, some federal agencies improved their media policies, and agencies like NOAA have given their employees the explicit right to speak to reporters without asking for permission.

But lest I be accused of throwing stones in a glass house, here in the United States we still have work to do. Earlier this month, UCS released a report card on policies that govern employee interaction with traditional and social media, which found wide variance among federal agencies as to the ability of government scientists to speak with the press and the public without political vetting.

Canada has had its share of recent troubles, too. Surveys find that government scientists are routinely prevented from speaking to the media, and the Canadian government has been unrepentant. A recent analysis by Canadian researchers patterned after the UCS media policy report card found that anyone from the public wanting to speak with a government scientist would be in for a long wait.

The country’s information commissioner is investigating the “muzzling” of government scientists. More than 800 scientists and other experts wrote a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year urging the government to remove restrictions on the ability of scientists to communicate and to collaborate with their peers.

Let’s hope that the United Kingdom doesn’t go down the same road.