Advocates for science communication in the United Kingdom have expressed “deep concern” about a change to the Civil Service Code for public workers, including researchers at government agencies. The three-sentence addition, put into place on 16 March, requires that all contact with media be approved in advance by the minister in charge of the relevant agency.
The Science Media Centre (SMC) in London and two other organizations fear that the policy change will hinder communication of science by preventing government scientists from responding to journalists quickly enough to meet their deadlines. "They're already a bit quiet," says SMC Director Fiona Fox. “If this makes them more quiet, that’s a bad thing.” Similar restrictions on media contact in Canada have led to delays in granting interviews with scientists and omission of Canadian research from media stories.
SMC today called on the U.K. government to reconsider the change and at least exempt scientists. The Association of British Science Writers and Stempra, a network of science public relations workers, also signed the letter, addressed to Francis Maude, the minister for the Cabinet Office, which made the change. “We believe this will have a negative impact on the public understanding of science and the quality of the public discourse on some of the most important and contentious issues of our times,” the groups wrote.
In a response to concerns from unions, Maude wrote that the change was simply to “provide clarity” on existing policy about media contact and reassured that it would not lessen protection for whistleblowers. But a union of 18,000 senior civil servants known as the FDA is not convinced. "Whatever exemptions may have been made for whistle-blowing, the unnecessary and unjustified changes made to the Civil Service Code will have the effect of making civil servants think twice before dealing with or responding to the media,” said FDA General Secretary Dave Penman in a statement. The FDA has launched a petition to change the policy.