Ban academics talking to ministers? We should train them to do it

Ben Goldacre in THE decries a backward step by the government.
Last month it was quietly announced that anyone receiving research grants from the state will be banned from lobbying “government and Parliament” on either policy issues or funding. The rule is said to be aimed principally at charities, but who knows the truth: in any case it covers all government grants “related to research and development”, and that means academics like me.

You might wonder how this came about. Presumably some unsuspecting charity worker or academic frightened one struggling politician who has, in the fog of war, overreacted. The ban is hardly improved by the fact that government departments can issue specific exemptions for approved individuals: if anything, that makes the whole project more sinister. A complex, centrally administered database of academics with permission to speak to politicians will be more expensive, more unmanageable and much more bizarre than any straight blanket ban.

Let me explain my concern. I’m an academic, and in the past two weeks I’ve had meetings with two ministers, one permanent secretary, one departmental director, and various other civil servants, analysts and wonks. I can only describe the process that led up to these meetings, if not the meetings themselves, as lobbying. But I also hope this activity is in the public interest. What’s more, I know there are many academics like me, seeking out politicians and senior civil servants on everything from alcohol to poverty, forestry and more. This is part of being a public servant, but it’s a practice without a public presence, toolkit, handbook or diploma.

That’s a problem. I don’t just want this ban overturned: I want to see more academics talking to policymakers, and I want the public to know what we do, so that they can decide if it’s good or bad. That’s why I’m now going to describe, in banal human terms, the meetings I’ve had in Whitehall over the past few weeks: to pool knowledge and share techniques, to promote transparency, and to help fearful, inexperienced politicians understand that there is nothing to fear from academics in practical outdoor clothing.

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The Ask

Scottish elections take place on 5 May 2016.

The Scottish Government have set a target of 10% of all trips by foot or bicycle, but less than 2% of the Scottish travel budget goes to 'active travel' (the buzzword for getting from one place to another minus a motor). We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote and Spokes suggest you ask your candidate to pledge the following:
To raise the share of the transport budget spent on walking and cycling to 10% over the course of the next parliament.
See the pages linked above for more info, including hustings you can attend to put the question to your local candidates. A don't forget to Pedal on Parliament on 23 April 2016.

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