It is sometimes difficult to decide whether a Government decision was the result of incompetence or an unscrupulous attempt to suppress debate. Since we are frequently kept in ignorance, the viewpoint I take often depends of the charity of my current mood. It was revealed by the Observer newspaper in February (in this article) that the Cabinet Office was imposing new rules from May 1st 2016 which would effectively censor recipients of Government grants from using their results to lobby for a change in policy. After a high profile protest by senior scientists, including the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, the Government has partly backed down (report here). The problem is that the wording of the exemption is so imprecise that a researcher may be tempted to abandon a funding application for fear of contravening the rules. Likewise the sanction for such a contravention was not made clear
Why is this important? Firstly, it is the duty of all Governments to protect their citizens, not least from their own policies and evidence of such harm must be made public. The attempt to control and suppress such information is redolent of corrupt totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Secondly, the Government Minister (in this case Matthew Hancock) seems to have forgotten that it is our money – there is no such thing as Government money. As I argued in an earlier post The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th Centuries was built upon the ability to question and challenge authority using reason and argument. This remains true today and public bodies have a duty not to restrict the ability of its citizens to access information which informs such debate. There are many topics at the present time where the evidence is hotly contested, not least in Climate Change, Defence and Social Policy. So do I think the Government is bring incompetent or acting with malice? The original decision to muzzle scientists could be viewed as incompetent but the way in which the Cabinet Office is confusing the situation rather than making a clean retraction is inclining me to view the aim as yet another devious attempt to stifle opposition.