Can government scientists speak freely?

This is a speech delivered on 31st October 2018 to the Science Media Centre at the Wellcome Collection, London.

I want to start by stating categorically that if anybody thinks I am here to defend the suppression of free speech by anybody, including government scientists, then they would be dead wrong.

I stand here as somebody who works for government and who is unencumbered by any such constraint. What I am saying here has not been through any government filter.

But I want to provide a reasoned argument as to why government scientists need to be careful about what they say in public and why, in general, they are careful.

Government employs scientists to help it understand how to develop better policies and to help those policies function well. Some scientists perform particular operational tasks, such as carrying out fish stock assessments, whereas others have a broader, more advisory role.

A few are synthesisers, networkers and organisers who draw on the knowledge in the scientific literature and the skills in the wider scientific community. Many do research, because this is important as a way of sustaining skills and continuously improving the knowledge base upon which policies sit. Some even sit at the very top of the Civil Service.

Like any employer government expects its scientists to abide by certain rules of behaviour. As in any work environment scientists have both a contractual obligation to their employer, and a social obligation to those with whom they work. They need to balance the need for candour internally with candour externally to the work environment. Scientists need to know how to build trust on both sides of this divide.

These are also moral judgements based on the balance between duty towards one’s institution, and one’s colleagues, and duty towards informing the wider public about one’s work. This duty is balanced differently among industry, academia and government, depending on whether scientists are generating public or private goods.

In all cases it comes down to an individual morally-based judgement about whether it is right to speak openly about one’s work.

This type of balancing of commitments is part of our social contract, as John Locke or Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have explained it. Like all citizens, scientists accept obligations which restrict individual freedoms so that they can work for the good of civil society. Where scientists are prevented, against their better judgement, from speaking then the social contract has been broken. But it can be equally broken if they divulge information which leads to bad outcomes, even if they were unintentional.

The UK places no constraints on government scientists speaking about their work other than for those who hold security clearances or during pre-election periods. Scientists are only expected to abide by the Civil Service Code defined by integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.

Like it or not, government scientists are linked to a political process which is strongly scrutinised. In this environment, some issues can be magnified or twisted. How should scientists view the risks of this happening and how should they then mitigate those risks?

My own view, based on experience, is that one needs to be very cautious indeed. For scientists in government there is a very high risk that what they say will be used to manufacture a case against current government policy. This most likely politicises government scientists and potentially sets them against their own employer.

If government scientists could be sure that their views would be reported as straight, unabridged pieces then I am sure many more would step forward to talk openly. But the probability of this happening is quite small.

As a general rule, practicing scientists need to stay out of politics. This applies as much to government as non-government scientists. Scientists occupy a special position as the custodians and communicators of knowledge. If that knowledge is interpreted as advocacy for one view or another then the messages from science will not be heard by those who would benefit most from listening.

Being listened to, and believed, especially behind closed doors in government requires trust that the harsh messages sometimes being delivered will not reach the public domain.

Government employs communication professionals to advise about the interaction between government issues and the public. My advice to any scientist is to listen to them because they know a lot more about this than we do.

I can see why this dynamic could be portrayed as “gagging scientists”, but those who say this are unable to put themselves in the position of the government scientist, or are actively trying to dredge for dirt, or have little concern for the wider perturbations which could materialise (including misrepresentations of the true message), or they care little about the human cost involved. For most people there is nothing worse than being at the centre of a political storm and I would not wish that on any fellow scientist.

I have a duty of care towards those who work for, and with, me and that duty means I have to be very cautious in my advice about how fellow scientists should engage with the press. I don’t think this is “gagging”; it is just good sense.

I am not denying that sometimes in government a line is crossed between supporting scientists to make their own judgements and forcing them to keep quiet because it is not in the interest of government to hear them speaking. I am also not denying that some other countries have systems of control which I would not agree with and which I would refuse to work within, but that is not the case in the UK.

Of course, there is a danger that systematic risk-aversion can become oppressive, pervasive and rooted in institutionalised cultures. Some of this does exist but I think its effect depends hugely on the quality and confidence of the leadership of those institutions.

Overall, government institutions find a good balance between supporting scientists’ freedom to speak, if they want to, and holding them to account if they break the rules of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. I am impressed by the way in which government scientists in the UK listen to advice, intelligently assess the risks and the moral arguments and come to their own decisions about how to behave.