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United Kingdom Government The Media Science

UK Government 'Muzzling' Scientists 83

Posted by Soulskill
from the information-wants-to-be-free-just-shut-up-for-a-couple-weeks-first dept.
taikedz writes "Fiona Fox, chief executive of the Science Media Center, has claimed that leading scientists independently advising the UK government are being actively prevented from speaking to the public and media, especially in times of crisis when scientific evidence is necessary for a fully open and educated public debate, such as the current badger culling policy, and the past volcanic eruptions and ash fallout and their effects. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whom many of these scientists are advising, denies any such practices."
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UK Government 'Muzzling' Scientists

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  • Badgers? (Score:5, Funny)

    by zeroryoko1974 (2634611) on Friday June 14, 2013 @10:55AM (#44007121)
    We don't need no stinkin badger's
  • Fear my laugh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) on Friday June 14, 2013 @11:05AM (#44007201) Journal

    Requests for interviews with scientists working for the Canadian federal government have frequently been turned down as a consequence of a media protocol introduced in 2008.
    This directive explicitly states that press officers should ensure that the minister is not embarrassed and that the interview is "along approved lines".

    Any time you see "Don't embarrass the minister", read: This is why freedom of speech is enshrined.

    "The dictator fears the laugh more than the assassin's bullet.". -- Robert A. Heinlein

    • by Anonymous Coward

      We need separation of science and state.

      "The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. "
      Eisenhower speech.

      • by Mashiki (184564)

        We need separation of science and state.

        You've already got it, it's called...private enterprise.

      • If the state doesn't fund science then an awful lot of important science simply won't get done. Private enterprise can profit from pharma, so that research will get done. But particle physics for example, not so much.

    • Any time you see "Don't embarrass the minister", read: This is why freedom of speech is enshrined.

      Freedom of speech doesn't apply to US government employees any more than it does to UK government employees. For example the muzzling of NASA scientists on the topic of AGW under the Bush administration.

    • by Darinbob (1142669)

      Freedom of speech exists. However there's no freedome to retain your job once you've pissed off your employer or your employer's primary customer. That's the real problem that is going on. Many of these scientists are work for "arm's length" agencies; that is they're supposed to be free of pressure from the government. However they certainly know that their funding may be at risk if they annoy the government ministers.

      The same problem exists if the government backs out and is replaced by private industr

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The article refers to muzzling in Canada (which is happening), whereas the summary refers to muzzling in the UK. The article implies that UK public-service scientists are being pressured, but it's not as explicit as here in Canada.

    • Both Canada and the UK governments are conservative (The UK as the major party of a coalition.) It's par for the course for right wing governments to be anti-science. They want their agenda being put to the media, not scientific truth.

  • david nutt (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Nutt would be another example of the UK government not wanting to hear from scientists.

  • This is what happens when you put professional spinmeisters in charge of professional workers: Dysfunction.

    Imagine putting a PR team in charge of the Doctors dealing with an epidemic. A doctor would like to announce quarantine measure, or tell people the full risks, or advise those who are sick, etc. If you had a PR man in charge, the whole epidemic would be treated as a mild flu, no-one would be informed, contagion would spread rapidly and thousands would die. "No matter", says the PR man, "We can spin that too.". But this misses the point.

    If you allow spin and the press office to dictate the running of an organisation, then the organisation effectively will not run at all. No professional can work properly with an unrelated lay person getting in his way 24/7.

    It's time to call PR men what they really are: Political Officers.

    • by TWiTfan (2887093)

      Most hospitals and public health organizations *do* have public relations people. And they usually oversee any public announcements.

    • by Xest (935314)

      It's not really even about PR men but entirely to do with the fact that an absolute minority (I'd wager you could count them on two hands) of Britain's politicians are willing to make policy based on the facts, as opposed to what they think should be the case based on gut instinct/religious leanings/other bias.

      Our politicians just do not have the capacity to comprehend why policy is best made based on evidence and facts as opposed to personal bias.

      It's really not anymore complicated than that. If I was a po

    • Personal political agendas being contradicted by scientific fact have made a quite few high-profile government folks look very bad. Can't have that.

    • by Hatta (162192)

      It's time to call PR men what they really are: Political Officers.

      I would have gone with worthless lying sacks of shit who do more to hurt society than everyone in prison combined.

    • by sjames (1099)

      Time to spill some tea.

    • Imagine putting a PR team in charge of the Doctors dealing with an epidemic. A doctor would like to announce quarantine measure, or tell people the full risks, or advise those who are sick, etc. If you had a PR man in charge, the whole epidemic would be treated as a mild flu, no-one would be informed, contagion would spread rapidly and thousands would die. "No matter", says the PR man, "We can spin that too.". But this misses the point.

      A theme examined in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, with regard to the public water supply. Which later inspired the movie Jaws, with it's rather more popcorn friendly "health risk".

  • Which, by default, makes that an official confirmation.

  • ... and preventively has forbidden the scientists to talk about it for good measure. Who can doubt their sincerity!

    • by Obfuscant (592200)

      and preventively has forbidden the scientists to talk about it for good measure.

      The article says nothing about prevention. It mentions one time when a scientist was asked not to speak to the press again. Ask. The rest of the complaint is that scientists who have signed the Official Secrets Act are hesitant to talk because THEY are afraid they might let something confidential slip out. Their fear, not a prohibition from the government, stops them from talking.

      Two points. Great Britain does not have a 1st Amendment, and even if it did (or has something equivalent) these scientists have

      • by Lithdren (605362)

        ...because THEY are afraid they might let something confidential slip out. Their fear, not a prohibition from the government, stops them from talking.

        Fear of what? Sounds to me like fear of the goverment to come knoking to me. It's not asking when it's an implied threat.

        Great Britain does not have a 1st Amendment, and even if it did (or has something equivalent) these scientists have waived the rights it would grant by signing an agreement not to talk about certain things.

        All the more reason scientists and anyone else able to think for themselves should leave such a place. I'm from the US, and i'll be first to admit its a horrible place, its a really terrible goverment, and even we are having issues at the moment with this free speech stuff, but at least its being attempted here.

        As for the second point, you cant really wave your right to the 1st amendm

        • by Obfuscant (592200)

          Fear of what?

          Fear of exactly what I said. They agreed not to talk about certain things as a condition of getting paid to do what they do and getting access to the information they got access to. They were afraid that while talking about unclassified things they would let classified information that they agreed not to talk about slip out.

          This "government knocking" isn't because they talked to the press, it would be because they talked about things they voluntarily agreed not to talk about.

          As for the second point, you cant really wave your right to the 1st amendment here,

          Yes, you can. It's easy. Go

      • by gweihir (88907)

        I call award you one "humor challenged" virtual medal! Enjoy!

  • David Nutt (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gallondr00nk (868673) on Friday June 14, 2013 @11:53AM (#44007733)

    The article fails to mention the treatment given to David Nutt by the last Labour government in 2009. At the time, he worked on the Advisory Council on the Misuse Of Drugs, which was meant to be independent of government. Based on their findings, Nutt pushed for the classification of illegal drugs based on actual harm, rather than arbitrarily as it still is now. The ACMD also published about the relative harmlessness of ecstasy and cannabis.

    For this heinous crime he was sacked by the then Home Secretary, who said "he was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy."

    Not long later, Cannabis was back to being a class B drug after only a few years at class C.

    It seems that all governments are anti-scientific when the science contradicts their ridiculous ideologies, especially when it comes to drug policy.

    An an aside, I remember the Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown, went on a morning talk show and said, with a straight face, that some strains of cannabis killed people.

    • by Obfuscant (592200)

      Based on their findings, Nutt pushed for the classification of illegal drugs based on actual harm, rather than arbitrarily as it still is now.

      This is not a scientific issue, it is a legal and ethical issue. He was thus no longer speaking as a scientific advisor, he was taking a legal/political stance.

      For this heinous crime he was sacked by the then Home Secretary,

      OMG. He became an outspoken advocate against current government policy while being paid by the government to provide scientific input, and he got fired. How awful.

      It seems that all governments are anti-scientific when the science contradicts their ridiculous ideologies, especially when it comes to drug policy.

      Laws should and must include social considerations and not just be a reflection of scientific physical laws. While you may call that "anti-scientific", it really isn't. You may also call

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I wrote to my Labour MP about drug policy and the ignorance of scientists and facts in legislature. Here's his (Paul Blomfield) response:

      (My name, but misspelled)

      First of all my most sincere apologies for the amount of time it has taken me to respond to your e-mail of 21 June 2012 on the subject of Evidence Based Policy. I understand why you feel that expert advice should not be disregarded. However, in coming to a view, it is the role of politicians to take into account a whole range of factors. I think t

      • A technocratic government. That'd be nice. Shame the idea died out, with the amount of data technocrats would have at their disposal these days, it could work really well.

        I wonder why he mentioned it in the sense that it was an unthinkable thing. Other than him not being an MP for the Technocratic Party of course.

        • by Obfuscant (592200)

          A technocratic government. That'd be nice.

          No, it wouldn't. It would result in the same kind of power struggles and partisanship that occurs today, only worse because scientists aren't elected.

          Anyone who has been alive for more than a decade has already seen the back-and-forth that science brings us regarding simple things. Red wine is good for you. Let's pass laws making it legal for anyone to drink red wine. Red wine is bad for you, let's make it illegal for anyone to drink red wine. Red wine is good for you in small amounts, let's make it legal

          • Anyone who has been alive for more than a decade has already seen the back-and-forth that science brings us regarding simple things. Red wine is good for you. Let's pass laws making it legal for anyone to drink red wine. Red wine is bad for you, let's make it illegal for anyone to drink red wine. Red wine is good for you in small amounts, let's make it legal to buy a glass at a time.... This study shows ... that study shows ... the other study shows something else. Which do we follow? What law do we enact? That's just one example.

            Right, but it's an example of the popular press interpreting the latest paper, and quoting it either uncritically, or as a "Look at what the mad boffins are saying now" depending on the reporters/papers position or what makes a better story.

            And as democracy stands, it's these second hand layman's views that the public absorbs and politicians pander to. A Technocracy would mean scientists taking a proper scientific view on the range of papers on a topic. And to misquote Rumsfeld: having a rational view on what are the knowns, the unknowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.

            Then you need to reconcile the concept of human rights and freedom against stark realities of physical law. It's dangerous to skydive. We're banning skydiving. It's dangerous to fly small airplanes. Let's ban small airplanes. It's dangerous to be distracted while driving. Let's ban all distractions. I mean ALL distractions. It's dangerous to drive anywhere, let's ban cars.

            As opposed to what happened here with David Nutt. He pointed out that the drug Ecstasy was less dangerous than horse-riding. Now to me that undeniable fact makes it unacceptable that ecstasy is illegal whilst horse-riding is legal. Are YOU really suggesting that having policy that is contrary to reality such as this is preferable.

            But more than that, you're confusing Technocracy with Nanny-statism. They are orthogonal. There is nothing about the concept of having things run based on scientific reality that means that people would be forbidden from taking risks.

            Who elects the technocrats?

            I'm more interested in the general concept of scientists running things than the details. It seems to me there are many possible systems for choosing the technocrats. Fundamentally technocracy implies meritocracy, to what extent democracy is or isn't mixed in there is open to question. Personally I'd want to see some expert opinion on that rather than suggest something off the top of my head. ;-)

            Let's end it with this: if I do a cost/benefit analysis of the death penalty issue, I would probably wind up with the answer that it costs society much less to execute a convicted murderer than it does to keep him in prison for any significant amount of time. (That applies to pretty much any convicted criminal sent to prison. A dollar or two of drugs vs. hundreds or thousands of dollars in incarceration costs. Benefits to society: lower population, lower costs for supporting that population, less carbon footprint as relatives and friend don't have to drive to the jail to visit. Wow, a win for the planet!) I would also probably come up with the science to support that once a person has committed a murder he's more likely to murder again. (Yes, the "one off" crimes of passion exist, but there are a lot of people who are complete psycho and sociopaths who will murder more than once, and they bring up the odds.) I could probably manage a scientific study that shows the costs of multiple, unending appeals are the main reason that the death penalty has any added expense, and that the majority of those fail.
            Ergo, science tells us that someone who is convicted of murder no longer gets appeals and is executed at the earliest opportunity. It's a simple cost/benefit study. Science has ruled.

            No, YOU"VE decided that cost/benefit analysis is the measure by which it should be done, and you've guessed what the outcome would be.

            But wait, people make mistakes. There are incalculable and often unrepeatable social costs (and thus outside any scientific realm) to the death penalty and we shouldn't do it.

            Science knows that people make mistakes, and what's more it can quantify them. They are far from incalculable. And social costs are certainly not outside the scientific realm. Social science is as much a part of technocracy as other sciences. Everything is study-able.

            Now your implication is that the decision is better made by the personal consciences of elected representatives. Who in some states and countries conclude that the death penalty is a good idea, and in some that it's a bad idea. In what way is that better?

    • The fundamental problem is that drugs policy is one of those areas that's driven by the Murdoch press. No UK politician dare to be seen as soft on drugs any more than soft on other kinds of crime. It would be electorally damaging.

      Tories are if anything more war-on-drugs types, even given the scientific facts. So it's not a Labour thing.

  • by azav (469988)

    The other other other white meat.

    Not just for breakfast anymore.

    I know this to be true because a UK scientist told me so.

  • Well, now we know where Stephen Harper got it from...
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Seriously, this trend towards scientists is appalling.

    And I've read the US government wants more direct CONGRESSIONAL oversight of research grants -in other words, look forward to more topical/pseudoscience research funding at the expense of science that NEEDS to be done that there's no profit in.

  • We condemn this practice in the most vigorous way.

    Sincerely,
    The Roman Catholic Church
  • Nice to see the slashbots sucking up the RCP line.

    The Science Media Centre's stated role is to get science into the public domain through the media when controversial topics hit the headlines.

    Tee hee.

    • Quite an amusing comment considering the sig promoting the Heartland Anti-science Institute.

      • If you follow the link you'll find that Scott Denning uses the platform Heartland gives him to demolish their AGW denier position.

        • Ah right, yes I remember following it up before now. Right winger telling the anti-science brigade it was stupid to deny AGW because that would mean that the right wouldn't have any say in what's to be done about AGW.

          • Getting them to admit there is a problem is the first part of the battle.

            Afterwards we can argue about how to fix it.

            And its such a fucking great put down of the denier idiots.

  • I never knew that there was a badger crisis in the UK. I mean, here people have been worried about hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes, and the occasional terrorist attack, but WILL SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE BADGERS?

  • with a proven history of biting children. Quite annoying, that bunch.

  • The British minister of Environment does not believe in global warming. I heard him say on the radio recently that the artic melted millions of years in the past so it basically does not matter if it does so again in the future(?). They seem to be very anti-science - it interfers with their belief sytem (bought and paid for by big business I suspect).

    J.

  • Hmm. Keywords are: "Department of Environment" and "Volcanic Ash".

    Looks to me as though the climate alarmists have had a hand in this muzzling of scientists.

    Even trying to get a grant for genuine research without stating an expected alarmist outcome is nearly impossible.

    Watch the alarmists mod this down to -infinity.

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