ESRC 'ignores' danger fears

July 20, 2007

Revised anti-terrorism project still leaves researchers at risk, critics warn.

A £2.5 million Foreign Office-funded research programme is still endangering the lives of researchers working in sensitive locations overseas, a number of key subject associations have warned, despite assurances that the project had been changed to protect academics.

The Times Higher exclusively reported in October that the Economic and Social Research Council had withdrawn its project "Combating Terrorism by Countering Radicalism" amid protests that it was tantamount to asking researchers to act as spies for British intelligence, in countries identified by MI5's anti terror unit.

The project was revised and relaunched earlier this year as "New Security Challenges: 'Radicalisation' and Violence - A Critical Reassessment". But The Times Higher has learnt that the ESRC has received letters protesting that the revisions do not address the fundamental concerns from the British Sociological Association, the Development Studies Association, the Association of Social Anthropologists and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies.

"The ESRC has discounted the concerns of experts in overseas research across a range of disciplines and seems unwilling to accept that research linked to possible UK government interventions in the internal affairs of foreign countries is especially sensitive," said John Gledhill, chairman of the ASA.

The original call for research proposals included a list of specific countries and questions - as one researcher put it: "The only thing they are not asking for is map coordinates." The revised call sets out a broader and more critical framework, but it retained a focus on meeting specific Government needs and two academics closely involved in redrafting the programme.

John Sidel, a professor of international politics at the London School of Economics, and Jonathan Spencer, an anthropology professor at Edinburgh University, were both concerned about the wording of a paragraph detailing the FCO's requirements, including the part research is expected to play in informing British counter-terrorism policy overseas.

Professor Sidel told The Times Higher : "My concern is the association of researchers with British counter-terrorism strategy, which is seen in many places as not just controversial but a cause for great anger. It has nothing to do with what one thinks of British counter-terrorism strategy oneself. I did not feel that our concerns were taken seriously. I think the situation was handled very clumsily by the ESRC." Professor Spencer declined to comment.

The president of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, Sir Harold Walker, told the ESRC in a letter that the initiative "threatens... not only the position of any researcher who took up work overseas under the initiative but indeed by association the position of all researchers working abroad".

In an e-mail exchange leaked to The Times Higher , Katharine McGuire, senior policy manager at the ESRC, confirms that the FCO has said it will withdraw its proportion of the funding for the project if the places and topics specified in the first project are not covered - "if its interests are not met by the selected projects".

The FCO's funding represents only about a sixth of the total funding, and the commissioning panel will select projects without regard to this issue, Ms McGuire writes.

rebecca.attwood@thes.co.uk

THE COUNCIL REPLIES

A spokeswoman for the Economic and Social Research Council said that the management of the Foreign Office- funded "New Security Challenges" project "has been unanimously endorsed by the ESRC council" after detailed work by a 14-strong panel that provided "full and appropriate representation of the social science disciplines with an interest in this area".

She said that the concerns raised by the subject associations "were mainly about the specific wording of a paragraph within the specification... relating to the FCO's policy interests in this area".

She said the FCO was not funding any individual projects but "is making an overall contribution as a partner in a collaborative initiative" and has had no right to "either insist upon or to vet any proposal".

"The selection of projects has been based on scientific quality," she said.

She said that "issues of risk, safety and research ethics have been taken extremely seriously", and research which might threaten the long-term viability of other researchers' work will not be funded."

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