Paymasters blunt the cutting edge

July 24, 1998

Mike Presdee tells Alison Utley how an Australian state government tried to suppress his research

Academic freedom has always been under threat from some predator or other, but as universities scramble to win profitable research contracts, they may be inflicting irreversible damage on their most precious asset.

So says criminologist Mike Presdee, reader in Sunderland University's school of social and international studies. Dr Presdee has his own story to tell of how a government that paid for his research then tried to suppress it. Earlier this month he delivered an academic paper on his experience to an Australian conference of criminologists.

Presdee fears criminology is losing its critical edge and criminologists are moving towards doing uncontentious research. "Academics are witnessing a shift in emphasis from their role as critic and conscience of society to that of service provider where the state has become a client,'' he says.

"The amount of contract research academics are doing is increasing. Contract research legally binds academics to provide information to clients or stakeholders. As such it is capable of restricting academic freedom. If academic criminological research shies away from critiquing the role of the state for fear of losing future government contracts; if it becomes little more than information gathering, used to formulate government policy, then we academics are at risk of becoming co-conspirators in the policing of knowledge."

Two years ago Presdee and his colleague Reece Walters from the Victoria University of Wellington were subject to an attempt by the South Australian attorney general's department to suppress their work. When the state crown solicitor's office got wind of two papers they had written for the 1996 Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology conference it claimed the authors were in potential breach of a confidentiality clause in their contract. Presdee and Walters dispute this.

The papers were based on government-funded research done by Presdee when he was an academic at La Trobe University in Melbourne. In 1993 La Trobe was asked by the South Australian attorney general's department to review a $10 million community-based crime-prevention strategy.

Presdee's research related how the strategy was created, developed and implemented. It detailed policy development, the organisational tensions and the impact of politics on government policy. His report concluded that unless tensions were addressed, "efforts at making crime prevention an effective and integral part of the criminal justice system will not succeed".

The government rubbished the report, claiming it was "unedifying jargon". Presdee maintains it was a simple case of the research not confirming the political agenda.

But it was when he sought to publicise his findings at the 1996 criminology conference that things started getting difficult. Legal action was threatened against both the Victoria University of Wellington as hosts of the conference and the Society of Criminology. The government demanded that the papers be withdrawn. And when the conference convenors resisted the gagging demands, the attorney general's department put pressure on the vice-chancellor of the Victoria University of Wellington to intervene.

In the end, the conference went ahead and the papers were presented, but the experience was a salutary one. "The trouble is that the notion of partnership rather than antagonism is writ large into the university agenda here today," says Presdee. "And consensus is always based on compromise and that does not sit well with academic research. You cannot compromise conclusions. There is a conflict there that is set to get more pronounced."

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