With a general election in the UK now just weeks away, the RSS has written to UKRI Chief Executive Professor Sir Mark Walport, reiterating the need to remind academics, via the research councils, of the changes in April 2018 regarding the clarification of rules on ‘purdah’ (the period of time immediately before elections or referenda when specific restrictions are placed on civil servants) and how they apply to scientists and researchers.
The letter (PDF) underlines the importance of communicating the clarified guidelines; in particular, allowing unrestricted commentary from independent sources such as academics throughout the election period.
This clarification came into effect following concerns expressed by the RSS, Science Media Centre and others that purdah guidelines in the run-up to the June 2017 general election inhibited academics to share their independent expertise. Examples of this included three independent academics on a government scientific advisory committee who were not allowed to comment on the government’s Draft Air Quality Plan.
Following the 2017 election, the RSS and other key stakeholders continued to highlight these examples and the failings of enforcing ‘purdah’ on the scientific community. The Society organised a roundtable discussion on the issue with senior civil servants and other key stakeholders, followed by a letter to Sir Jeremy Heywood (former head of the civil service) to make the case that the guidelines were not clear enough. Sir Jeremy responded, clarifying the principles of purdah ‘are not, and have never been about restricting commentary from independent academics’. As a result of our roundtable and letter to Sir Jeremy, clarification was subsequently introduced.
RSS Executive Director, Hetan Shah, recently stated in Civil Service World that ‘it would be helpful if UKRI were to make a statement about this so that the research community is clear that there are no restrictions on their ability to speak publicly in the run up to the election’.
UPDATE 5/11/19: The 2019 pre-election guidance has now been published and does not contain a specific reference to not applying to independent researchers. Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, said: ‘It is regrettable that the guidance has taken a backward step in not being clear that it does not apply to independent researchers, but that is still how it should be interpreted, and the research community should feel free to use their expertise to cast light on the election issues. We will continue to push for the guidance to be clearer so that it does not inhibit academics from contributing expertise to public debate.’