Monday, 21 March 2016

Green energy academics to be gagged by new government grants policy

Academics who receive research grants will no longer be allowed to 'lobby' the government for policy changes in their areas of research expertise under rules being introduced by the government from May this year. This will have the effect of silencing the bulk of academic experts if they happen to be critical of the government. If this rule had been in operation before most, if not all, of the posts in this blog could not be published.

This represents a 'soft' version of a new authoritarianism.

Democracy, under this trend, remains formally in place, but people putting forward alternative ideas to that of the dominant corporations are increasingly silenced. Indeed, arguably, in this sense British academics will often be less free even than Chinese academics. They may not be able to challenge the role of the Communist Party, but they can at least take part in public debates about policy options. Under these proposals, British academics will fear even to write letters to newspapers on their own expert policy areas.

The new policy is ridiculous on several levels. One laughable example is the pressure that academics are under to earn brownie points for 'disseminating' the public policy importance of their research. But if they can't discuss and comment upon policy options open to government, how can they 'disseminate' their research in any seriousness?

The universities are likely to be the enforcers of this policy. They  will no doubt be very worried about being attacked and losing grant income, and so are likely to impose blanket bans an academics making policy statements, at least if they receive grants on that subject. Possibly (depending on the university) all academics will be effectively banned from making criticisms of government policies, or at least made to go through some bureaucratic process of requiring permission - by which time the point of making any criticisms will be passed and the effort required will put people off doing anything.

Of course academics at research universities are impelled to apply for grants. Career progression is at least partly (in some areas mainly) dependent on winning grants. In some situations they may even be made redundant for not winning them. So academics will be forced to make a choice. Their democratic freedoms will be severely curtailed as a result.

I know in my case, since I have received grants from the ESRC to do with renewable energy policy, that I would not be able to engage in the policy debates that I have done - including campaigning for feed-in tariffs for small renewables in which I can claim to have played a noticeable role, and more recently criticising the government's cutbacks in contracts available for wind and solar power. The new rules would prevent me from talking to MPs, civil servants, ministers, lobbying political parties - of course I did/do these things, but won't be able to in the future if I win research grants in that area.

 I daresay my anti-nuclear comments would come under scrutiny, or at least it would be much more difficult  for me to make them as an academic. If I win grants in the future to do with energy policy then I won't be able to criticise government policies on energy - like me many campaigners for renewable energy, and of course critics and sceptics of nuclear power, will also be effectively banned from putting forward their views.

There's also a similar crackdown on NGOs who get money from the Government and charities (see the recent pressure on Friends of the Earth for example). Soon, in the energy sphere, you won't be able to say anything unless you are funded by one or other of the Big Six energy companies. And we know what they will and will not pay for us to say!

You can do something to at least bring this piece of creeping authoritarianism into public debate (whilst we still can) by signing the petition at this weblink (please copy and paste this in your browser):

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