Let’s prevent the government from muzzling researchers

UK Universities, still getting to grips with the Prevent counter-terrorism legislation, now face further restrictions on academic freedom. From next month, researchers who receive state funding can no longer use their findings to challenge government policy. Many academics receive state funding via research councils; now, the cabinet office is set to introduce a clause into new and renewed grants that will prevent any portion of this revenue being used for lobbying.

Leading scientists have spoken out against the ‘muzzling’ impact these proposals will have on their work. They argue it threatens the development of evidence-based policy in areas such as climate change, conservation and public health. Government-funded researchers will encounter restrictions on how, when and where their findings are published.

Academics should have the same rights as everyone else to criticise government policy. Academics are paid to provide a critical voice for society, and because their work might lead to controversial findings, they need extra employment protections. Research cannot be conducted without funding, but this inevitably creates tensions when the outcome of the work undertaken is critical of the funder. Academics have always been quick to point to such tensions when universities receive funding from pharmaceutical or tobacco companies. Government funding brings with it similar tensions, yet this has been far less frequently acknowledged. When research confirms political priorities, inherent contradictions in the funding process are skirted over.

Research, particularly in the social sciences but also in the natural sciences, is rarely objective. It is framed by the questions chosen, the data gathered and the way results are interpreted. Sometimes research simply confirms political prejudices. This would be less of a problem if a diversity of views were reflected in the academy. But when universities represent a narrow range of viewpoints, particularly in subjects such as social psychology, the awkward questions that might challenge the nature of the research undertaken are less likely to be asked. The result is what Jonathan Haidt refers to as confirmation bias.

Government ministers are similarly prone to misuse research to avoid taking political responsibility for policy directions. This week, the UK parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee launched an inquiry into the scale of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools on the back of research that does not stand up to scrutiny. Politicians should read and understand research but, importantly, recognise that it is not an instruction manual to be followed but a resource to be drawn upon.

Ideally, academic research should aim to be as objective as possible – or at the very least represent a range of viewpoints. Ideally, government ministers should have the courage to engage with research without hiding behind it. Restricting academic freedom will not bring this situation about. Closing down debate and curtailing criticism benefits neither the development of government policy nor the advance of knowledge.

It is good to see academics challenge the threat to academic freedom posed by this new legislation. However, it would be easier to mount a defence of academic freedom if scholars were prepared to speak out against attacks from within the academy and to defend the academic freedom of those whose views they dislike. Many of the scientists now challenging government restrictions remained silent when Sir Tim Hunt was hounded out of academia for making a bad joke. If they had defended academic freedom then, perhaps it would be easier for them to challenge government policy now.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. Her new book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge, is published by Palgrave Macmillan UK. (Order this book from Amazon (USA).

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