£1.3m 'spies' project ditched

October 27, 2006

A controversial government research project criticised for enlisting academics as "spies" in the war against terrorism has been abandoned after The Times Higher highlighted fears that the proposals could endanger the lives of British researchers working in Muslim countries, writes Phil Baty.

An entirely rewritten research project, looking at the links between radicalism and terrorism, will be launched next month - and will have a budget larger than the £1.3 million earmarked for the original plan.

This newspaper reported last week that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, along with two research councils, was inviting selected academics to bid for funding under a project called "Combating Terrorism by Countering Radicalism".

The project focused on countries identified by MI5's Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre and required academics to "scope the growth in influence and membership of extremist Islamist groups" in key countries, and to "name key figures and key groups".

Furious academics warned that the plans, run with the FCO by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, asked explicitly "intelligence-led" questions.

They said it was tantamount to asking independent researchers to act as government "spies". This put the lives of researchers in key countries at risk, whether working on the Government's project or not, they said.

In a statement released this week, the ESRC says: "After some deliberation, the ESRC and its partners have decided to withdraw the current call for proposals for 'Combating Terrorism by Countering Radicalisation'.

"As a result, we are engaging in discussions with senior academics... and with the relevant boards and committees of council, to draft a new call in the field of international relations and security.

"The new initiative will have more funding available than previously. It will be issued under an open call and, like all ESRC-funded research, quality will be assured by international peer review."

It adds that project outcomes will be publicly available.

John Gledhill, chair of the Association of Social Anthropologists, who led the criticisms of the plans, said: "I am very happy that they have completely abandoned the previous programme and have responded to all the concerns."

The call for proposals under a new project should be made in a few weeks, the ESRC said.


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