On Thursday 6 June 2019 Stemprans gathered for drinks, nibbles, networking – and most importantly to discuss purdah (or the pre-election period) and what it does and doesn’t mean for press officers working on STEM stories in the weeks running up to an election. Robin Bisson, Stempra committee member and Senior Press Officer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London organised and chaired the event, and the panellists were Carmel Turner, (then) Chief Press Officer at the MRC; Linda Capper, Head of Communications at the British Antarctic Survey; and Pete Castle, Research Communications Manager at the University of Reading.
The discussion began around the over-interpretation by some of purdah guidelines in 2017, which resulted in some scientists and press officers being unsure whether they were subject to restrictions around communicating their new research. The short answer was that they weren’t and shouldn’t have been discouraged from communicating in a business-as-usual fashion! Not everyone had seen examples but some in attendance described their scientists as having felt ‘gagged’ during previous purdahs. One aspect that was raised was that the confusion had arisen partly because there were different bits of advice coming from different research councils, and that grey areas had been mistakenly seen where independent academics were in receipt of government funds from research councils.
So, it was useful at the event to be reminded of the recent clarification added to purdah guidance from the top (from the cabinet office) making clear academics are not subject to purdah: “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” and that individual bodies “should not go beyond” the principles outlined in the guidance in their interpretations of it.
The overall take-home message from a great panel was for press officers and their scientists to proceed as normal with press releases and media work around new scientific research and in helping journalists with their reporting on breaking stories during purdah – the rare exceptions being big announcements of funding from arms-length bodies. It was an interesting and useful event, and a nice note to finish on was the rallying cry that it is our duty as press officers to encourage and defend those scientists communicating their work because they are doing the job we ask of them – and this could come in handy sooner than we think; who knows when we might next have a general election!