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Some scientists are exempted from government’s “gagging clause”

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i2299 (Published 21 April 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i2299
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. London

Scientists have welcomed the government’s announcement that research councils and the national academies will not be bound by a controversial “gagging clause” but have called for more clarity about who will be exempt.

In February the Cabinet Office announced that a new clause would be inserted into all grant agreements from May, requiring that government money should not be spent on campaigns to influence parliament, government, or political parties or to “influence legislative or regulatory action.”1 Scientists were concerned that this would stop them speaking out against government policy.

In a statement released on 19 April the universities and science minister, Jo Johnson, announced that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills would be exempting government funded scientists from the clause, which was intended to ensure that taxpayers’ money was “properly spent on what was intended in grant agreements.”

He said, “I am happy to confirm that it is not our intention for the research councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), or the national academies to be covered by the clause. We are continuing to talk to the research community and will outline more detail by 1 May, when this clause takes effect.”

Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre in London, welcomed the government’s U turn but added, “This long awaited exemption is still imprecise. Not all scientists are funded by the BIS [Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] or via the HEFCE. Will those funded directly by other government departments be prohibited from lobbying by this clause?”

Mark Downs, chief executive of the Royal Society of Biology, welcomed the announcement but said that “uncertainty remains.” He added, “There remains a considerable portion of the research community who have not yet been mentioned, including those whose work is funded by government departments, and others, specifically to answer policy challenges.”

It is up to individual government departments to work out how they implement the clause, so groups in receipt of funding from other government departments may still have to abide by the clause.

Jeremy Taylor, chief executive of National Voices, a coalition of health and care charities, said that the government had, by exempting academics, acknowledged flaws in the clause, which would have a “chilling effect on freedom of expression.”

He said, “This decision sets an important precedent. If researchers are to be exempt, why not charities? It also raises the question: why not drop the clause altogether?

“Grant recipients, including many health and care charities, often work with some of the most vulnerable people in society and are well placed to raise concerns and provide intelligence on improvements that can be made to services, policy and regulation. These are precisely the functions that are threatened by the anti-advocacy clause.”

Speaking in the House of Lords on 19 April, George Bridges, parliamentary secretary for the Cabinet Office, sought to quell fears, saying that charities can use other funds to lobby the government.

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