We need clarification of 'purdah' for our scientists

Ri Director Professor Sarah Harper explains why we joined many scientific bodies in seeking clarification of the 'purdah' rules for our scientists.

The Royal Institution, along with other national science bodies, has today written to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, requesting clarification of the 'purdah' rules for scientists. While it is clearly understood that in the run up to an election civil servants are required not to announce initiatives which might have political impact on the public as they consider their upcoming voting intentions, it is also important that the public is able to continue to engage with the nation’s scientific community and that our scientists are free to openly convey their expertise.

As an independent charity, founded over 200 years ago to engage the public with science, we highly value the free exchange of knowledge and ideas. The Royal Institution signed this letter because we believe that it is at the intersection of science and society, where scientific advances have the potential to transform daily life, that the greatest challenges lie. Across our lives science is presenting us with new choices to make. Advances in reproductive medicine are confronting young people with moral choices unimagined by their parents; our workplaces are being transformed by new technology, our jobs rebundled into new set of tasks or replaced completely by AI and robotics; bio-medical research is offering the possibility of extreme longevity.

This, of course, is not new; scientific advances have long impacted upon our lives. From before the upheaval of the industrial revolution, through the health advances brought by medicine to the modern digitalisation of daily activities, our lives have been transformed by science. Yet it is also clear that the current changing political and economic contexts have, more than ever before, created the need for more open and critical public debate, and a wider understanding of the practical, ethical, moral and social implications of science. And this clearly requires the freedom of our scientists to be able to speak out about science. 

Professor Sarah Harper, Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

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