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Researchers have been rightly worried by the prospect that from 1st May a clause in Government grants would make it extremely difficult for them to engage with policy making and advice.

The announcement on Tuesday from Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson that “it is not our intention for the Research Councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) or the National Academies to be covered by the clause” has therefore been greeted with a degree of relief in the community, along with hope that additional details promised on 1st May will say that other Government Departments also favour exemptions.

The provision of scientific advice is a key activity for the Royal Society of Biology (RSB) and our members. At the beginning of March (seven weeks ago) Dr Mark Downs CSci FRSB, chief executive of the RSB, in collaboration with chief executives of eight member Learned Societies wrote to the Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock to highlight community concern and seek a solution.

A copy of the letter was sent to the minister Jo Johnson and to the Government chief scientific adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport. We are aware that a great deal of discussion and diplomacy has been poured by the research community into trying to resolve this matter. All agree that it would be detrimental to current and future generations of researchers to be effectively barred from advising policymakers. RSB director of parliamentary affairs, Dr Stephen Benn engaged broadly and found strong interest in the briefing prepared by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Ministers show a growing recognition of this but there is more to be done.

Dr Sarah Main director of CaSE who has played a key role in discussions said “The message is loud and clear that science is a welcome and necessary part of parliamentary debate and policy-making.

We trust that all ministers will take Jo Johnson’s lead to ensure that researchers funded by any department can freely engage with Parliament”.

Following responses to a question raised in parliament, Dr Mark Downs said “Today’s discussion in the Lords highlights the critical importance of getting this right. We welcome the fact that the Minister for Universities and Science is taking steps to ensure that research is not adversely affected in any way. The intention to exclude grants from the Research Councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the National Academies from this clause is welcome. But intentions must be turned into clear and unequivocal guidance. There remains a considerable portion of the research community who have not yet been mentioned, including those whose work is funded by Government departments, and others, specifically to answer policy challenges. Uncertainty remains and the announcements planned by BIS for May 1st remain crucial.”

The RSB will continue to engage on this issue.

Update: Government to continue considering the comments of all interested parties ahead of the introduction into grant agreements of the clause.

Previous news item: New rules could restrict scientists sharing knowledge with Government

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