That sounds at first glance like it might not be too unreasonable. After all we want our scientists to be objective not political campaigners. As soon as you look into the implications in more depth it quickly becomes evident that this is not about defending objective science. It is about seriously weakening it.
There are only really two serious sources of finance for scientific research in the UK. The first is pharmaceutical companies or other private sector organisations. Much of their research is excellent and is directed at bringing useful new discoveries to the market and making sure that they are safe. Some of their research is not. Some privately funded research is almost entirely directed at providing propaganda dressed up as science in an attempt to defend products or practices which are in reality damaging to the public interest.
The clearest example of this is the decades of research paid for by the cigarette companies to muddy the water against the evidence driven approach of objective scientists. That isn't just something that happened way back in the past. It still happens now. The same distortion of science was used to continue including lead in petrol way after objective scientists had proved the harm and the same distortion is being practiced today by climate change deniers who get their funding from a few short sighted fossil fuel companies. The same is also happening with respect to the research into the harmful effects of neonicitinoids on the health of bees. The producers have a strong financial interest in hiding the objective outcome of research that proves these insecticides weaken helpful insects as well as ones that are viewed as a nuisance.
We are therefore fortunate in the UK that the second major source of scientific research is the excellent objective work coming out of our Universities. Admittedly what is funded can be skewed badly by government prejudices and academic sterility. Especially in areas of social science like economics where almost all recent research has been driven by a narrow ideology into a sterile dead end. Nevertheless the majority of genuinely curious independent research comes from academic sources. There is a risk of small amounts of additional private sector funding being used in ways that encourages the suppression of a finding that is inconvenient for the sponsors but most Universities still pride themselves on resisting this strongly.
The latest ruling puts all that at risk. You can do the research. You can put the outcome of your research into an obscure scientific journal. You can even tell the government in private what you have found. But if you find anything that you think the general public ought to know about then you can't tell them what you have found without putting your future research grants at risk.
So the cigarette company would be able to publish its research saying how little harm those nice fags did to you. But the academic who proved the contrary wouldn't be able to approach the newspapers and tell them what objective factual science had demonstrated. Government money would have paid for the research so the researcher would have been forced to agree to stay silent or lose employment.
This creates so many potential dangers that it is difficult to exaggerate them. Who chooses what counts as scientists using public money to promote an idea? How can scientists take that money if they know that they won't be able to inform people effectively about the outcome of years of investigation? What are the risks of quiet self censorship in order to secure future funding? Is there a risk that popular science books would not be published if they relied on evidence garnered from government funded research? How many research projects will never begin because the ruling would make them pointless and there is no alternative to state funding?
To give an example, one of my favourite books of recent years comes from an academic scientist called Dave Goulson. It is called A Sting in the Tale and describes the risks to our bees of modern farming practices and of importing hundreds of thousands of bumblebees and associated diseases every year into the UK to pollinate tomatoes. Under the new ruling he could not have published that book without putting at risk the jobs of his research team who depend almost entirely on work funded by a series of insecure temporary government research grants. Meanwhile the neonicitinoid companies would remain free to select which bits of their scientific research to publish. Anything that shows low levels of their poison damage bees would continue to be suppressed by them. Studies that helped their cause by failing to find a link between bee deaths and their poisons in particular circumstances would be publicised widely. Not exactly a recipe for progressing objective scientific understanding.
Another of my favourite books comes from Callum Roberts who published Ocean of Life in which he collected all the scientific evidence of the harm we were doing in the seas into one single truly scary publication. That book could also have been banned because he was using research grants paid for by the taxpayer to write things that were controversial.
To say that there is a danger of censorship is therefore not alarmism. It is a factually accurate description of what is being quietly pushed through. The government is seeking to acquire the powers to tell any scientist who has ever received government money for their research that they cannot use that money to write freely. That effectively puts them in control of every book or article in a popular magazine published by a UK scientist.
That seems to me to be rather important. Our government has just introduced censorship of science and it is being nodded through quietly because folks are concentrating on whether Boris Johnson or Donald Trump has the worst hair cut or the worst policies.
We ought to start calling this the Galileo law. Because it is very similar to what existed in his day. You can get out your telescope, you can watch the moons circle Jupiter and figure out that the earth must go round the sun. But don't you dare tell anyone about your controversial finding or your research grant will be cut and your livelihood will be put at risk.
Freedom of scientific enquiry is a fundamental principle that we shouldn't sacrifice to anyone. It shouldn't be restricted by religious convenience. It shouldn't be restricted by intimidation from corporate lawyers and it certainly shouldn't be constrained by an extreme right wing government using government money to enforce compliance.
I find it astonishing that it should actually be necessary to make this argument. These are ideas that I thought everyone in Britain was committed to fighting to protect. It seems I was wrong. Freedom of speech has gone out of fashion and freedom of scientific enquiry is being replaced by the need to control the soundbite. This ruling therefore needs to be challenged hard and long by everyone with the remotest interest in independent scientific enquiry. Which I thought was just about all of us except the Tea Party right and the Stalinist left! Let's hope that still proves true and the government has to cancel this measure under a storm of protest.
For a report on this policy see: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/feb/20/scientists-attack-muzzling-government-state-funded-cabinet-office?