Misinformed dangers

May 4, 2007

In his article "Blind faith" (Features, April ), Anthony Glees berates my discipline for turning down "a government offer of £1.3 million to study how to combat terrorism by countering radicalisation" and then quotes an unnamed London School of Economics anthropologist who explains that this was because the work had "an overtly security-research agenda, starting from the premise of a link between Islamism, radicalisation and terrorism".

Neither contention is correct.

The research programme was a joint "venture" involving the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Anthropologists drew the ESRC's attention to ethical, practical and procedural problems in the original call for proposals and the fact that £1.3 million was inadequate to produce quality research on the scale required.

The ESRC accepted these criticisms and withdrew the programme for reformulation.

The quotation that supports Glees's misleading contention is unattributed because the colleague never uttered those words. The "quote" was constructed by a Times journalist from an e-mail written to other colleagues.

No one sought to verify this "quote". The point the colleague actually made - that "radicalisation" required definition and analytical scrutiny - was acknowledged by the committee that revisited the programme specification.

Anthropologists are in no way opposed to the idea of academic research informing foreign policy or counterterrorism strategy.

What we, along with many other disciplines, have consistently argued is that such research must be independent of government and, even more important, must be seen to be so. Otherwise, there is an unacceptably high risk that the reputation of British research overseas will be irretrievably damaged and the physical security of British researchers and foreign nationals who work with them will be endangered.

That would mean that in future it would become even more difficult to base debate, analysis and policy with regard to the issues that concern Glees on any real evidence.

John Gledhill
Chair Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth

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