In a letter to the Minister for Government Efficiency and Civil Service Reform in the Cabinet Office, Professor James Wilsdon FAcSS, Chair of the Academy’s Campaign for Social Science, and Sarah Main raise concerns over an anti-lobbying clause that threatens to put the brakes on the research impact agenda. The letter comes alongside an article, originally appearing in the Guardian, where Professor Wilsdon and Dr Main explain how the proposal could have unintended consequences for publicly-funded research.
This week, thanks to a freedom of information request, we learned that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) was considering an increase in the weighting for impact in the next Research Excellence Framework (REF), from twenty to twenty-five per cent.
HEFCE’s consultation was pulled before publication by Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities and Science, to make way for the broader questions posed by his November 2015 higher education green paper. More recently, Lord Stern, president of the British Academy, has embarked on a comprehensive review of the REF, which is expected to report in July.
The idea of yet more pressure to demonstrate the economic and social impacts of research will inevitably prompt groans from some quarters. But one of the successes of the REF has been in moving impact to the mainstream of UK research culture, and ensuring that it is better supported and rewarded. Even if they begrudged it at first, many researchers now accept – even embrace – a greater emphasis on the many ways in which their work benefits wider society.
It was a surprise, then, to learn this month that the Cabinet Office might be driving the impact agenda in the opposite direction. Citing an analysis by the Institute of Economic Affairs of what it calls government-funded “sock puppets”, the Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock announced that from 1 May 2016, all government grants will include an ‘anti-lobbying clause’ to prevent public money being used to “lobby for new regulation or more government funding.” Specifically, government grants cannot be used to “support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties… or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.”
This flies in the face of concerted encouragement by government over the past decade for researchers to engage more actively with policy. Analysis of the near-7000 impact case studies submitted to the 2014 REF by 154 universities, found that “informing government policy” was the most common type of impact, followed by “supporting Parliamentary scrutiny” and “technology commercialization”. Similarly, the Russell Group found that fifty-five per cent of all the REF case studies submitted by its member universities had an impact on policy.
So, taken at face value, the new clause has the potential to halt the onward march of impact, by outlawing the use of publicly-funded research and evidence to inform government policymaking.
Conversations with government insiders suggest that this is not the intention. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Research Councils and HEFCE apparently had little advance warning of the Cabinet Office announcement. But the thorny problem remains of how to apply the clause in a way that doesn’t hamper high quality research with impacts that are relevant to policy.
Part of the problem is that research outcomes are used in many different ways across Whitehall and other government bodies. Departments can directly commission research for policy development or to inform their response to urgent priorities. Researchers can voluntarily submit evidence to inquiries, consultations conducted by Parliamentary select committees or departments. And there are many other informal ways through which research expertise and evidence enter the policy process, including membership of advisory committees, informal briefings and meetings with minsters, MPs, officials and advisers.
The Cabinet Office guidelines accompanying the clause allow for ministerial exemptions under exceptional circumstances. But at a time when government says it want to reduce the administrative burden on researchers, the bureaucracy that would be created by applying for a ministerial exemption on a case-by-case basis is senseless. Added to which, many research projects are not explicitly funded for the purpose of informing policy, nor would applicants be able to reasonably predict a policy outcome at the point of application. The relevance of research to particular policy questions more often emerges over the course of doing the work.
In the past few days, there have been some encouraging noises to suggest an exemption may be granted to Research Council and HEFCE funding. This is good news. But we must ensure that the entirety of the advice system to government is protected from the unintended consequences of this clause. This includes evidence from NGOs and charities, who have also expressed serious concern about the effects of the clause.
The UK can be justly proud of its progress in making use of evidence from research in policymaking. Our network of chief scientific advisers, led by Sir Mark Walport, is respected worldwide and has been emulated by other countries. Our national academies, such as the Royal Society, have a rich history of advising government, dating back to the 17th century. Since 2010, further initiatives have been put in place to strengthen the interface between research, evidence and policy, including the Cabinet Office-backed network of What Works Centres.
A solution is required which achieves the intended purpose of the new clause, whilst maintaining the health, diversity and integrity of the evidence ecosystem. This will require input from the Government Office for Science, HMT, and research-intensive departments such as BIS, MoD, DoH, Defra and DfID.
Today, our two organisations – the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) and the Campaign for Social Science (CfSS) – have written a joint letter to Matt Hancock at the Cabinet Office to highlight the pitfalls of the clause and encourage him to consult more widely with the research community. Neither CaSE nor CfSS receives any government funding, so we would thankfully be exempt from the clause. But we make no apologies for speaking up on this issue, which has the potential to damage UK research, evidence-informed policymaking, and the wider public interest.
James Wilsdon FAcSS is chair of the Campaign for Social Science, professor of research policy, and director of impact and engagement in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. Sarah Main is director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.