The eerie electoral silence of scientific institutions

Wednesday 28 April 2010, 16:02

Fiona Fox Fiona Fox is chief executive of the Science Media Centre

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My mates have been confused by my sudden tendency to rant about Purdah - with most of them thinking I've suddenly taken against the Muslim and Hindu custom of women completely covering themselves up when they go out.

But it's the other Purdah that has me so irate - the inexplicable, arbitrary set of rules that stop scientific bodies funded by government from speaking out on almost any subject once an election is called. (If you want chapter and verse, start here.) 

My first objection is that anything like it exists at all for bodies that I'd always believed were independent from government. OK, so I suppose I do kind of know that the Met Office and the Research Councils and the Science Museum are funded by government, but I have never seen them as anything but independent. 

Maybe that was naïve but, in my defence, those and a long list of similar institutions operate pretty independently from government most of the time. Yet apparently, once an election is called, they are treated just like civil servants who can be silenced with the click of a Purdah button.

To be fair, I only started questioning the whole principle after being driven to distraction by the practice of it. The first irritations started before the Election was announced with a number of scientific institutions calling to postpone long-planned and important press briefings. Once the Election was announced it got worse. There are too many annoying examples to list here but one body had to stop its climate scientists from speaking out on the ongoing 'Climate-Gate' saga; another had to stop speaking on a piece of important medical research it funded; and, in perhaps the most bizarre example, another refused to allow a TV crew to interview a Science Media Centre expert on volcanic ash at its premises. 

Is it me or is this both stupid and wrong? None of these issues is party political and there are already too few people qualified and willing to speak out on these issues. There should be very, very good reasons to justify our losing access to the best experts when they are most needed.
And if you are sanguine about our ability to survive for four weeks without hearing the truth about medical research and climate change, how about the outrageous application of Purdah to the front line in Afghanistan? For an entire month, none of us will be allowed to learn about the circumstances of deaths of British troops or Afghan civilians, because no UK journalists have been embedded in Afghanistan since the Election was called.

My hunch is that these institutions are being over-cautious in their interpretation of the rules and a little more challenge would be in order. Obsessed as I am with this subject, I contacted my friends at NICE to see how or if there had been an official reaction to the lengthy (and excellent) interview with its CEO, Sir Andrew Dillon, by Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor at the Independent.  

While Jeremy had specified early on that the interview was given before the Election was called, the reality was that a major interview had appeared smack bang in the middle of Purdah. Gloriously for my personal campaign, nothing bad had happened; no hands were slapped; and no heads rolled. Just as I thought!

The whole thing reminded me of the Queen's visit to open the newly refurbished Royal Institution last year. Because the Science Media Centre happens to be housed in the RI, we were suddenly hit with a set of demands and restrictions so ridiculous that they beggared belief - as all those who have had royal visits recently will know. 

The reason I raise it is that we decided to politely refuse to comply with the most ridiculous demands - partly because they were disruptive to our independent operation but partly because we suspected they were imposed because some official somewhere felt he could get away with it. Having embarked on our little act of rebellion, we sat and waited for the guards to arrive to take us off to the Tower - and guess what? Right - nothing happened!   

I can see why civil servants have to go into shutdown during elections and I'll even grit my teeth and say that I could live with government-funded bodies agreeing to not make policy pronouncements on election issues during the campaigns. 

But I think the time has come for scientific institutions to get together and draw up their own set of guidelines on the Election, and those should enshrine the principle of the right of scientists to speak out on scientific issues whenever they are needed - election or not!

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