Academics’ ability to lobby government under threat from new funding clause

No go zone for academics? garryknight/flickr.com, CC BY

There are growing worries in universities that restrictions on the use of public money to lobby the government, initially focused on charities, may have a chilling effect on the independence of publicly funded research. Whether this is ministers’ intention is an open question.

In mid-February, the government announced that a new clause will be inserted into new and renewed grant agreements from May 1, forbidding recipients from “using taxpayer funds to lobby government and parliament”. As well as covering grants to charities to carry out services, this also covers those “funding research and development”.

Pessimists, and conspiracy theorists, discern a pattern of the government displaying alarming authoritarian instincts. Ministers do not seem to recognise the need for pluralism in an open and democratic society. So “short” money, to help fund political parties (and a “loyal” opposition that is duty-bound to attack the government), has been cut. Meanwhile, local councils have been instructed not to use procurement procedures to enforce boycotts of dubious suppliers. It is not just campaigning charities that are in the government’s sights.

Public interest put aside

Comments by Matt Hancock, the minister for the Cabinet Office, when announcing the new clause, were not reassuring. He justified the restrictive clause on the grounds it would put a stop to “the farce of government lobbying government”. Leaving aside the large-scale lobbying of the Treasury, or his own Cabinet Office, by other Whitehall departments, and by local government or the Scottish and Welsh Governments (all publicly funded, by definition), this is a chilling as well as a naïve view.

He does not seem to recognise that it is in the wider public interest, if not that of the ruling party, that the government is held to account and vigorous public debate is encouraged. These are basic principles of democracy.

Optimists point out that the government’s target is narrower, radical charities especially those on the fringes of Islamic fundamentalism – so many political initiatives undermining human and political rights can be traced back to the toxin of “the war on terror”. No doubt, direct-action environmental campaigners are in there, too. They add, to reassure nervous scientists and scholars, that there are no explicit references to publicly funded research.

They point to the actual phrasing of the new regulations for charities:

The following costs are not eligible expenditure: payments that support activity intended 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.

No – direct – threat to the independence of research. And yet … the bulk of research in UK universities is public funding for projects by research councils and core funding through the Higher Education Funding Councils. Much of the rest comes from charities (which arguably could get caught in the government’s anti-lobbying net), and successive European programmes (although the much-maligned Brussels bureaucracy has no plans to impose similar restrictions on lobbying).

Shut out? Agenturfotografin/www.shutterstock.com

If the government genuinely believes its new anti-lobbying rules do not apply to publicly funded research, it should consider explicitly exempting it – to remove all possible doubt.

This is not so much an argument for special treatment as for consistency across government, because we do not yet have – thank goodness – a monolithic Jacobin or Stalinist State. For a start there is a range of regulation, and even some legislation, that protects academic freedom, and places a duty on universities to uphold it.

Conflicting demands

Yet academic freedom without the right to active dissent, and effective action in support of that dissent, is not worth much. There is now also a requirement that the findings of all publicly funded research is made available freely by being placed in open-source repositories, on the grounds that what the public has paid for the public has a right to access. The public not the government, please note, although this is a distinction ministers seem to be struggling to understand.

And it was the government, admittedly the previous Labour one not the present government, that insisted the “impact” of research should be a key criterion in measuring its quality – not the university and research community which remained sceptical. Yet again, the “impact” of much social scientific research cannot be reduced to producing “evidence” to support pre-selected government agendas. Nor is it easy to draw a line between the vigorous dissemination of research findings (a “good thing”) and advocacy or lobbying (“bad things”).

The risk that the anti-lobbying rules will have a worrying effect on university research cannot be dismissed. The government has form here – not just the cuts in the “short” money and the restrictions on local authority procurement but also, much closer to home, the restrictions its Prevent anti-radicalisation strategy have placed on freedom of speech in universities. Its determination to propagate “British values” has the potential to actively undermine these very values.

The danger is probably not so much that mad ministers will succeed in occasionally censoring, or neutering, pieces of research but that habits of caution and timidity will spread glacially through Whitehall and quango-land. The current situation is a salutary reminder of the perverse effects of Margaret Thatcher’s belief that “there is no such thing as society”. We should not reject the idea that there is a public sphere distinct from, bigger than (and, yes, occasionally even antagonistic to) the State.