State scientists adjust results

February 11, 2000

One in three scientists working in government or recently privatised labs has been asked to tailor research findings, according to a trade union survey.

Some 30 per cent of respondents said they had been asked to adjust their conclusions or the resulting advice. There were three reasons: 17 per cent to suit the customer's preferred outcome; 10 per cent to obtain further contracts; and 3 per cent to prevent publication. More than 500 employees responded to the survey.

"The credibility of government scientific advice is at stake. The government must take urgent steps to preserve the integrity and independence of its scientific advice," said Paul Noon, general secretary of the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, the trade union that represents scientists in government departments, the research councils and private companies, including spin-offs.

The IPMS is campaigning for the return to public ownership of institutes that have been privatised or partially privatised, including the Transport Research Laboratory, the National Physical Laboratory and the Building Research Establishment.

Mr Noon said: "More and more government advice depends on bodies that (rely) on private funds. The price you pay is that the public does not believe the advice is independent. In the end, the government will be the loser. It will get poorer quality advice and its research will have a lower standing."

During the BSE crisis, the public lost confidence in the information coming from government and overseas governments questioned the validity of the scientific advice. The public also distrusted government advice on genetically modified foods.

"We have to protect the status of public research institutes. What government should be doing is taking back into the public sector those institutes that have been privatised," said Mr Noon.

University science received a funding boost in the comprehensive spending review announced in July 1998. Spending on scientific research in governmental departments, however, has fallen. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's research budget has been cut by Pounds 4 million this year.

The survey found that half the scientists who responded are looking for a new job. About a third reported that they want a new employer offering better career prospects and better financial rewards. One in three wants to quit research and development altogether.

"The figures are dismal. It's not just people who are leaving jobs in the United Kingdom to go overseas to better pay and conditions - people are getting out of science and technology altogether. It is a terrible loss to the UK science base and the British economy," said Mr Noon.

Some 89 per cent had a first degree or higher qualification, including 36 per cent who had a PhD. However, 60 per cent earned less than Pounds 30,000. Almost half of respondents said they would not advise their children to aim for a career in science or technology. For parents with PhDs, the figure rose to 54 per cent.

Peter Cotgreave, director of pressure group Save British Science, said: "If we want the best scientists to inform government policy, we must pay them something comparable to the salary they could earn elsewhere."

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