By Katherine Mathieson, CEO, British Science Association, 18 May 2017

The British Science Association has today signed a joint letter to Sir Jeremy Haywood, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, asking the Cabinet Office to be clearer about how purdah should affect publicly-funded scientists.  

Taxpayers money is used to finance independent research on topics that the public cares about, like climate change, air quality and infectious diseases. It’s important that these findings can be published and discussed openly. We’re concerned that in the run-up to the 8 June election, this might not be happening. 

Purdah is a sensible restriction on the amount and the type of communication that policymakers can carry out in the run-up to a general election. As the letter says, there is a need to “keep the airwaves free for electioneering and to avoid announcing investments or new initiatives that could sway voters.” But there is currently a lack of clarity about how it affects scientists and researchers who work for publicly-funded organisations. Scientists and the people who advise them aren’t sure when they can speak out – and so they often stay silent. 

The letter has been jointly signed by many respected science institutions, from the Association of Medical Research Charities to the Royal Statistical Society. This shows that scientists value an open dialogue with the public – as they are the people that both fund and are directly affected by the scientists work.  

We felt strongly about signing this letter because we represent the public's relationship with science. We believe they should be part of the process and fully informed. There can also often be the stereotype of scientists that they work in ivory towers, cut off from the conversations that the rest of us are having. But their disquiet about purdah shows that the stereotype is not true - scientists see speaking out as part of their job. When they are prevented from discussing their research with everyone else, scientists complain. And rightly so – we all pay for the research that is done in public institutions and we should all be able to benefit from it all year round.   

You can download the letter here.