Scientists are being gagged from speaking to the public by a heavy-handed government media blackout before the general election, according to leading research institutions.
Civil servants have for more than a century been barred from talking to the press in the six weeks before polling day, a practice known as purdah that is meant to stop new policies or controversies from influencing the outcome.
This year, however, the veil of silence has been cast over independent researchers in what science bodies say is the strictest purdah they can remember. Several senior scientists sitting on government advisory panels have told The Times that the regime meant they could not speak out on issues such as climate change and air pollution. Some said they had been instructed not to speak to journalists, even on non-political matters.
A dozen organisations, including the Royal Institution, the Royal Statistical Society and the British Science Association, have warned that these restrictions risk hampering debate on the important scientific questions of the day.
In a letter to Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, they have sought clarification about the rules amid fears that the guidance is being applied “in an ad hoc and arbitrary way which is not in the public interest” and is stifling freedom of academic expression.
“We cannot remember an election where purdah extended so far into the daily work of research-active scientists and we are extremely concerned that the public are being denied access to the best experts at the time when they are most needed,” they wrote. “We do not believe, however, that purdah was ever intended to stop research-active scientists from commenting on breaking news or critiquing important new studies.
“These activities are an important part of the scientific process, are not political, and should not be interrupted by an election without good reason.”