Report by ABSW board member Andy Extance

Following a letter signed by the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) and other organisations, the UK government has clarified that ‘purdah’ rules should not restrict commentary from university academics.

The clarification follows a notice from Research Councils UK that it must ‘avoid competition with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public’ in the run-up to the country’s election on June 8. The same notice also advises scientists not to highlight their research council funding and to delay publishing press releases about research-council funded work until after the election.

Science journalists have found that these and other instructions have had an unduly chilling effect. The letter, written by the Science Media Centre, highlights several examples where scientists had inappropriately declined to talk to the media. Those examples include subjects such as a new study on climate change, the current UK drought, and the government’s draft air quality plan.

In his response, Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood emphasised that the ‘purdah’ pre-election guidance is ‘designed to maintain the impartiality of the Civil Service, ensure the appropriate use of official resources, and avoid competing with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public during the election campaign’. ‘It is therefore appropriate that public bodies are subject to restrictions on their public activity during this period of sensitivity,’ he writes. ‘As such, staff members of [non-departmental public bodies] should not comment publicly on politically controversial matters, or proactively contribute to debates on high profile issues during this time. However, the principles are not, and have never been about restricting commentary from independent academics.’

The ABSW welcomes this clarification and the impact it will have on the ability of its members to talk freely with the UK’s scientific community. As the country prepares to leave the EU it will need innovation more than ever to help power its economy. It is therefore vital that journalists able to talk with its scientists to highlight and scrutinise scientific developments of national and international significance. This is even more important during the election period.

However, care should be taken that this situation is not repeated. “The next Government should undertake a review of the guidance on purdah and ensure that in future it does not harm the public interest and infringe on the academic freedom and independence of university researchers,” ABSW board member Bob Ward wrote.

For more on the background to this story and lessons to be learned from it, read what ABSW board members have written elsewhere:

Bob Ward’s London School of Economics blog post

Cristina Gallardo’s Research Professional story

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