Here's Why Scientists Can’t Speak Freely During An Election, And Why It Matters
"There’s important stuff being done by UK researchers, and to stop them talking – in apolitical, non politically relevant ways – about the science they worked on, that’s ridiculous."
Scientists are being silenced during the electoral period, a "ridiculous" situation that means the public is getting an “evidence deficit at the very time they need the best evidence”, they have told BuzzFeed News.
The period before an election, during which civil servants are restricted in what they can say to the media, is known as "purdah". The rules of purdah say civil servants cannot make public statements, such as press briefings, that could be seen as supporting one political party or another or that would distract public opinion away from parliamentary candidates.
Purdah applies to many scientists – not only those in the direct employ of the government, but also many who sit on independent advisory boards and research councils. BuzzFeed News has learned it has affected scientists’ ability to speak on two high-profile subjects in the last week.
Last week we published an article about the “global warming hiatus”, the period between about 1998 and 2012 when the world appeared to get warmer more slowly than was expected. We attempted to get comment from a Met Office scientist, but were told by its press office that climate sceptics could view a civil servant’s comment about climate change as political.
At least three scientists on an independent government advisory committee were explicitly told by the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and other government departments that they couldn’t offer any comment on it. Other scientists who have no connection to the government and were able to comment told BuzzFeed News the plan was “toothless” and “weak”.
Fiona Fox, the head of the Science Media Centre, an organisation that helps put news outlets in touch with scientific expertise, told BuzzFeed News: “We had [problems with purdah] with the pollution stuff, and it really matters.” She said the SMC contacted three senior scientists, all members of independent scientific advisory committees, to get comment on the story, and was told by government departments that they couldn’t speak.
BuzzFeed News contacted a scientist on such a committee – Professor Frank Kelly of King’s College London, chair of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants – who confirmed that he had been explicitly advised not to address the media.
“[The three scientists] were among the best on our database,” Fox said. “We love independent government advisers – the whole point of them is that they’re independent.”
It is particularly strange that they are off-limits for comment, she said, since these are not civil servants in the full-time pay of the government but scientists who once or twice a year join the advisory groups. “I don’t even know if they’re paid. It really is not the major part of their job.”
She doesn’t think that the advice was a deliberate attempt to prevent scientists from attacking the government’s air pollution plan – ”I’m not conspiratorial about it, because I’ve been putting up with it for so many years” – but she does think it’s unhelpful.
“It doesn’t strike me as sensible,” she said. “There’s lots of fear and self-censorship.” In the case of the air pollution report it was particularly silly, she said, since the report's publication was a breach – or at least a sidestepping – of purdah in itself.
Dr Gavin Schmidt, a British climatologist who now works in the US as the director of NASA’s Gifford Institute for Space Studies, told BuzzFeed News the situation faced by British scientists is “ridiculous”. “There’s no question,” he said. “Time, tide, and science waits for no person. There’s important stuff being done by UK researchers, and to stop them talking – in apolitical, non–politically relevant ways – about the science they worked on, that’s ridiculous.”
He specifically took issue with the idea that scientists should have to reduce their visibility to avoid distracting attention from would-be MPs – the guidelines state that those covered by purdah should “do everything possible to avoid competition with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public”.
“If politicians want to be heard, they should command by virtue of being interesting,” said Schmidt. “The idea that we have to cover everything a politician says just because it’s an election is ridiculous.”
A scientist at the Met Office who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity said “people can be overcautious” about purdah, but that the caution is often justified. “Scientists who work on things which are more important to government, or which are more media-friendly, understand what can happen if you get the communication wrong,” they said.
“Our press office is pretty good at spotting things that could be seen as political, because they’re used to climate sceptics grabbing things that shouldn’t be political.”
But this cautiousness has led to the situation becoming more extreme in recent years, said Fox. “People are murmuring that it’s got worse,” she said. “It comes in the wider context of more restrictions on scientists anyway.” She said a very senior scientist who used to head a research council told her that up until about 10 years ago, purdah never really applied to him, “and then head office put out a directive, and he couldn’t say anything, no matter how apolitical. So I’m intrigued about what happened 10 years ago.”
Others have raised concerns in the last few weeks. An Economic and Social Research Council scientist reported in a letter to The Guardian that “all grant holders”, not just employees of the council, have been instructed not to publish anything “that has the potential to influence the outcome of the election”, a situation he said is “draconian” and “beggars belief”.
And the fact-checking organisation Full Fact wrote to Sir Jeremy Heywood on 20 April, the cabinet secretary, warning that the guidelines “suggest that statistics, social research, and other independent analysis should be less available and these bodies should be less responsive at election time than at other times”.
“At no time does it matter more that the public have access to trusted and rigorous data and analysis than when they are being asked to make important decisions in an election,” the letter said. “So it is crucial that your guidelines make clear that these bodies can continue to perform their public information functions in the normal way during an election period.”
Some of the restrictions seem bizarre: The Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme, a body that studies the health of populations of British birds of prey, says “there will be little news posted on the PBMS website and no activity on social media” during the purdah period. But it says its science will continue as normal and “please contact us if you find a dead bird of prey”.
“I think it’s really important to keep bringing this back to why it matters,” said Fox. “We’re not against these rules because we don’t like rules but because we care about the public having access to the best evidence on topical issues.
“If you put heavy restrictions on, or take out of the public debate entirely, all the scientists in research councils and [other bodies], and all our chief scientists – not to mention the academic scientists who we know avoid commenting for fear they may fall under purdah – you end up with an evidence deficit, at the very time when you need the best evidence. Journalists have no option but to go to less authoritative sources during an election.
“Research councils and independent scientists are being treated like civil servants when they’re not, and that seems a dangerous precedent. If the rules are getting stricter and more pervasive, and no one is noticing or resisting, that’s worrying.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "The pre-election guidelines published by the Cabinet Office provide guidance to government departments and arms-length bodies on their activities during the pre-election period aimed at maintaining the impartiality of the Civil Service and avoiding any criticism of an inappropriate use of official resources.
"Individual government departments and arms-length bodies will have regard to this guidance when making their decisions."