THE BLOG

An Attack on Academic Freedom that is Bad for the Public Interest

25/03/2016 16:25 GMT | Updated 25/03/2017 09:12 GMT

University researchers on climate change have just over a month left to overturn new Government restrictions that would prevent them from influencing policy-making and countering the vested interests of 'sceptics' and fossil fuel companies.

The Cabinet Office quietly announced on its website on Saturday 6 February that, from May, all Government grants would be awarded on the condition that they would not be used "to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action".

Although the so-called "anti-lobbying clause" is not explicitly aimed at university researchers, it is an attack on academic freedom because it will apply to all grants awarded by the higher education funding councils and research councils.

This draconian move could have dramatic consequences across a wide range of public policy areas. It could, for instance, halt publicly-funded medical researchers from trying to persuade the Government to give regulatory approval for new treatments for diseases.

The new rule could also have particularly harmful effects on policy-making about climate change.

It could, for example, stop publicly-funded university experts from submitting evidence to Government or Parliamentary inquiries on issues such as flooding or the UK's targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

And it would make it more difficult for academic researchers to publicly or privately challenge decisions by Ministers who deny the risks of climate change.

What is ironic is that the new rule is being introduced because the Cabinet Office has caved in to a campaign by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a 'free market' lobby group which is ideologically opposed to Government regulation and does not disclose its sources of funding.

The IEA also has a long track record of promoting unscientific climate change denial. Its website hosts a number of pamphlets with titles such as 'Climate Alarmism Reconsidered' and 'Global Warming False Alarms'.

In 2014, the IEA gave its 'Free Enterprise Award' to Viscount Ridley, the hereditary peer and former Chairman of Northern Rock Bank who is now one of the UK's most strident climate change 'sceptics'.

The head of the IEA said that Viscount Ridley's award was recognition for his "many important interventions to promote free-market policy ideas in areas as wide-ranging as energy, the environment and income distribution".

Earlier this month, Viscount Ridley tried to defend the application of the new restrictions to publicly-funded university researchers when Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, was quizzed about the issue by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

Mr Johnson indicated that university researchers are not the intended target and that he is seeking an exemption for them. But Viscount Ridley said: "I am impressed that this is not about stopping people lobbying but about stopping people using money that was given for one purpose for lobbying instead. There is nothing to stop an individual from an organization using his own money to buy his own train fare in his own time to come and lobby a politician."

One of the beneficiaries of the gagging of climate change experts in universities will be the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which has an all-male "Academic Advisory Council" including Viscount Ridley as a member.

The Foundation, set up by Lord Lawson in 2009 to lobby against climate change policies, will find it easier to sway Ministers if university experts are not allowed to challenge its inaccurate and misleading portrayal of the science and economics.

In 2014, the Foundation was forced to create a subsidiary lobbying arm, the Global Warming Policy Forum, to undertake its campaigns after the Charity Commission found a breach of its rules.

The Foundation's main tactic has been to attempt to discredit the work of climate change researchers in order to undermine the case for policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

For instance, one of the Foundation's trustees, Lord Donoughue, has submitted dozens of Parliamentary Questions over the past few years to dispute the scientific evidence, and even arranged a meeting with a minister at the Department of Energy and Climate Change so that a 'sceptic' could accuse the Met Office of being wrong about global warming.

The Global Warming Policy Foundation will not be directly affected by the new limits on university researchers. It is funded by secret donors and does not receive Government grants.

University researchers on climate change play a vital role in counteracting the harmful propaganda of lobby groups like the Global Warming Policy Foundation which champion ideology over science.

It is for this reason that I have started an official petition, calling for the Government to exempt researchers in universities and research institutes from the new 'anti-lobbying' clause.

If the petition reaches 10,000 signatures, it will force an official response from the Government, and may persuade Ministers to abandon their plans for a new rule that would be bad for policy-making, bad for the public interest and bad for democracy.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.