Purdah – what does it mean for scientists?

Our President, Professor Dame Anne Johnson PMedSci, reminds Fellows and early career researchers that they do not need to shy away from public commentary ahead of elections – plus, a short Q&A about purdah. 

Academy President Professor Dame Anne Johnson PMedSci comments:

“I’m pleased to remind researchers from all disciplines, including our Fellows, that they are not restricted by law from sharing their expertise in the run-up to elections.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown, more than ever before, the essential role of expert comment to inform public discussion around medicine and science. Biomedical and health research are inextricably linked with the UK’s health and wealth.

“The evidence generated by research, and the first-hand experiences of UK clinicians and basic scientists, are essential to inform debate about the issues that affect us all. You can see more detail below, but please be assured that you can continue to share your expertise publicly during purdah periods now and in the future.”

What is purdah?

According to the House of Commons Library:

In the period immediately before an election or referendum there are restrictions on the use of public resources and activities of civil servants and ministers. This pre-election period is also known as the ‘period of sensitivity’ and has often been referred to in the past as ‘purdah’.

The point of purdah is to ensure public resources are not being used for party political advantage. The latest purdah guidance is available in this online report.

Does purdah apply to me?

In previous years there has sometimes been the mistaken belief that these rules also extend to researchers, something that led to an update in the guidance in 2018. The latest guidance reissued for local elections in May 2021 specifically says:

The principles set out here are not about restricting commentary from independent sources, for example academics who may also hold public appointments or non-executive roles in government departments or public bodies.

What can I say?

Honorary Fiona Fox OBE FMedSci, Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre, is clear about what researchers should feel free to do:

“The clarification of purdah rules means researchers can confidently:

  • Comment on breaking news and significant scientific developments
  • Publicise their own research findings and comment on new findings by peers
  • Enter media debates on topical controversies as independent experts

As for what is not allowed during purdah, Government or arm’s length agencies should not:

  • Make big funding announcements that could benefit the party in power (these should be delayed until after the election)
  • Publish major reports with policy implications that could be delayed until after an election
  • Make explicitly party-political statements that would benefit one party in the election”
What is the Academy doing?

We will make sure the Academy’s voice continues to be heard on critical issues affecting medical science. This includes clarifying recent funding announcements for research and development and working to secure a clear strategy for the UK’s science funding landscape which can contribute to both the future health of the public and our economy.

As you would expect we are making sure that all our activities are in line with the guidance issued by the Charity Commission.

If you are an Academy Fellow, programme member or grant holder, our press office team can help connect you with journalists or join the Science Media Centre's database of experts. For further information contact naomi.clarke@acmedsci.ac.uk

Explore here for more information on all our UK policy work.

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