While talk might be cheap, silence is deadly

November 3, 2000

Could academics have prevented the BSE crisis? Before they were silenced by business and government, they might at least have tried, say Greg Philo and David Miller.

Since the publication of the BSE report, debate has focused mostly on how the government failed the British people. But what about the academic community? BSE is a clear example of how academia can be silenced as a source of dissent and independent critical thought. What drove the strange procedure by which infected cattle brains were fed to other cattle in conditions that were against all previous practice? More important, why did so few in the scientific community draw attention to the possible dangers? The answers to both questions lie in the rise of the free market in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1980, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Farming abolished the safety regime proposed by the previous government, stating that "in the present economic climate, the industry should determine how to produce a high-quality product". In the same period, there was a series of attempts to control the scientific research agenda. In the late 1980s, Maff won an internal Whitehall battle to define BSE as an animal, rather than a human, health issue. Academic and government scientists claim that public health research was forbidden by Maff. One scientist at the government's Public Health Laboratory Service said: "It was obvious to us that this was a public health issue. We were all ready to move but then had to stop. The word came from above that this was Maff's thing."

Maff also denied researchers access to necessary data and attempted to influence the research funding priorities of the supposedly independent funding councils. It was claimed that Maff censored scientific reports and bullied scientists into changing their supposedly "independent" advice. As it stands now, almost all government departments have clauses in their research contracts that give them power over the release of final results. Research for the Department for Education and Employment, for example, requires researchers to "incorporate the department's amendments".

A second explanation for the relative silence of academics (with a few notable exceptions) on BSE and other issues is the increasing closeness of academics to the market. In the 1980s, funding regimes - especially of scientific research - changed. Inadequate public funding for research, together with the advent of the new genetics and biotechnology advances, resulted in scientists' job titles changing: research directors became chief executive officers as their research centres became commercialised. As universities became more business-like, the public interest was not well served.

Our collection of essays, Market Killing , describes the processes by which academics have become unable to comment critically on key issues. Some of the damage was self-inflicted - for example, academics in the social sciences moved into the dead end of "postmodern" theory, with its endless capacity for speculation and its abandonment of empirical research. But others point to the pressure on academics to bring in money and to conform to the priorities of funding bodies. Philip Schlesinger, director of the Stirling Media Research Institute, notes that research council scientific policy envisages the purpose of academic output as contributing to the UK's economic performance. He also cites a recent speech by education secretary David Blunkett, "Influence or irrelevance", in which it was suggested that social science research should be a service industry for government policy-making. Schlesinger says the message is clear - "make yourself useful on my terms".

Some critical voices do remain, particularly in research funded by independent charitable trusts such as Joseph Rowntree, but their resources are tiny compared with government and commercially funded research.

It is no surprise, for example, that recent headlines on the damage being done to school children by the government's intensive regime of tests came from research commissioned by the Professional Association of Teachers, backed by a children's charity.

But there is no shortage of critical issues to discuss. In the education debate, there is little discussion of what education can or should achieve. Politicians mostly avoid such issues, preoccupied as they are with the quest for "academic excellence". New Labour politicians (and their Conservative predecessors) like targets that can be set and then claimed to have been met, irrespective of whether they have a rational purpose or of how much damage they might cause.

We also believe that the influence of the free market produced a rise in inequality and violence, the development of a huge criminal economy and the degradation of social and cultural life. But where are the academic voices on these issues? There is a sustained public debate about the dumbing-down of television, yet most media and cultural studies departments have little to add to this. To do so would require an empirical study of factors such as the influence of de-regulation and specific changes such as the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which in effect removed quality thresholds from independent television and enabled franchises to be awarded purely on monetary grounds. The result was stimulation television - the biggest earthquakes, the worst car crashes. Academics may be watching, but few are analysing the results.

On social issues such as the drugs debate, the most questioning and critical voices come from the Police Federation and ordinary police officers, who are forced to work with an incoherent and paradoxical drugs policy.

If academics are to give any lead or guidance on such pressing social issues, the universities and research councils must assert their independence from the state. In September of this year, the Economic and Social Research Council hosted a special session at the British Academy on public understanding of science. A central concern at the meeting was the growing public distrust of scientists, especially those linked with government policy. In Market Killing , Hilary Rose, visiting research professor of sociology at City University, focuses on a related issue, that scientists may have a vested interest in the products on whose value or safety they are asked to comment.

One proposal raised at the ESRCsession was that members of the academic and scientific communities should agree to a Hippocratic oath in which they undertake not to act against the public interest. It is a measure of the seriousness of the situation that such a proposal should be made. A more immediate and necessary reform would be that the protocols of research councils should have the criteria of public interest and the independent evaluation of policy clearly stated as the guiding purpose of research and that these should have priority over criteria such as "economic growth" and "policy relevance". The case of BSE shows only too clearly that the public interest is not at all the same as the generation of wealth and making ourselves useful to policy-makers.

Greg Philo is research director of Glasgow University Media Research Group. David Miller is a member of the Stirling University Media Research Institute. Market Killing is published by Longman.

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