New media rules hit UK government scientists

Science communication bodies have criticised a UK Government code for civil servants requiring ministerial approval before they talk to the media.

Fiona Fox
Fiona Fox

The UK’s Civil Service Code was updated this month requiring the pre-authorisation, which in theory also applies to scientists working for the government in units such as the Met Office and the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control.

In an open letter to cabinet secretary Francis Maude, the UK Science Media Centre, the Association of British Science Writers and Stempra, a science PR and communications network, wrote that the minor wording change could have a major chilling effect on government scientists speaking to the press on controversial issues.

Fiona Fox UK SMC director Fiona Fox told the Guardian: “What we need are messages from on high that are supportive and back scientists sharing their evidence and expertise to better inform these debates. Unless the situation is clarified, this will have a chilling effect. Scientists will keep quiet to be on the safe side.”

In an editorial on the issue, science journal Nature said changes to the Civil Service Code may not become a topic of debate in next month’s UK general election, but that scientists should “find their voices again” and question its meaning.

“Any block on transparency and openness is a step backwards. The government that takes over after the general election should clarify what it wants from its scientists, and how the rule change alters that. It should consider an exemption for researchers talking to the media about their work in acknowledged areas of public interest, such as climate or health.”

The New Zealand situation

Government-employed scientists working in New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes generally can speak to the media as long as interviews are approved by their institute’s communications staff. But major controversial issues are often dealt with by senior ministry spokespeople, so scientists are told to defer to the officials. Many CRIs also undertake contracted work for ministries so are contractually obliged to refer all media queries to the ministry they are working for.

The New Zealand Association of Scientists will explore the issue next week in its Wellington conference Going Public: Scientists speaking out on controversial issues. The conference will feature journalists, scientists and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, who is developing a scientist’s code of conduct for public engagement with the Royal Society of New Zealand.

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