On 1st May, a new law will come into force which will serve so as to prevent publicly funded academics from conducting research which will criticise government policy. This new law, originally reported on in The Observer in February will effectively be a gagging order on thousands of academics carrying out vital research, large quantities of which could have been used in order to improve government policy.
The law was originally designed so as to stop Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) from lobbying the government using public funds. However, senior scientists and other researchers have complained that a side effect of this law will be that researchers funded by the Government will no longer be able to use the results of their research to criticise government policies. To put this into perspective, out of the 163 universities in the United Kingdom, only 5 do not receive some level of government funding in order to support their research. This means that 158 universities and thousands of researchers are at risk of being muzzled by this illiberal gagging order against government criticism.
Do we really want to be a country that gags academics, or do we want our Government and our academics to work together in order to formulate effective policy?
This is a major problem because one of the major aims of research by publicly funded universities is to help produce better government policy. Without this research, policymakers will be less well informed and policy will be of a lower quality. As Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Centre asks, “politicians don’t have to agree with scientists, but does anyone believe we will make better decisions without evidence?”
There are a number of important policy areas which will be affected by this decision. These include, for example, housing. The new law will prevent researchers from criticising new housing regulations no matter how many potential problems they may have. A particularly worrying outcome of this law is that scientists could be prevented from criticising the government’s climate change policy, this in a government with a number of climate change deniers. There are countless other research areas which are at risk of being muzzled by this new law, which will undoubtedly result in poorer quality policy, thus leading to a country less able to compete economically, less able to provide for its people and less able, even, to defend itself - coming from a Government claiming that Jeremy Corbyn is a national security risk.
So how will Newcastle University be affected by this, I hear you ask? As a publicly funded university, any of Newcastle’s research areas are at risk of being muzzled by this new policy. For example, our groundbreaking genetics research could be at risk of being gagged if the government decides it is against gene modification. Furthermore, our excellent research into clean energy is also at risk as the government increasingly turns its back on renewable energy sources and instead focuses on shale gas.
This new law is a massive risk to future government policies as, without the support and criticisms of top universities across the UK and their ground breaking research, lawmakers will be unable to formulate good policies, thus putting our social and economic wellbeing in great danger. On top of this, the illiberal nature of preventing academics from carrying out research because it disagrees with government policy smacks of Putin’s Russia and its political system bordering on authoritarianism. Do we really want to be a country that gags academics because their research criticises the powers that be, or do we want our Government and our academics to work together in order to formulate effective policy?