'I felt very isolated,' says stunned critic

December 1, 2006

An increasing number of researchers face censure over studies critical of Labour policy, raising fears about freedom, reports Jessica Shepherd.

No one with "the slightest common sense" could possibly take seriously research by Peter Tymms, the minister said. The professor of education at Durham University was one of those academics who is "so out of touch" that they "churn out" irrelevant findings that should be ignored.

This was the thrust of a devastating public attack on Professor Tymms, launched in July 1999 by David Blunkett, Education Secretary at that time.

Professor Tymms had completed a study of more than 20,000 children, which concluded that 11-year-olds who did the most homework performed least well in national tests.

"There was a co-ordinated attack and a rubbishing of my research by the Prime Minister, David Blunkett and Chris Woodhead (head of the Office for Standards in Education at the time)," Professor Tymms said.

His first reaction was one of self-doubt. "I did initially think to myself, 'Have I got this data right?' and 'Am I going to lose my job?'"

He said: "I worried about what people were saying about me as an academic and what effect it would have on my reputation. I thought, 'Gosh, I feel very isolated.' But then I thought, 'No, I know I am right.' The country is better informed as a result of my research."

Seven years on, Professor Tymms, director of the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre at Durham, said he was still suffering the effects of making the news as a high-profile critic of government policy.

"The centre is not particularly successful when it comes to research grants and I don't know whether that might be because we have annoyed the Government or not," he said.

"It does seem that the academics who keep their heads down get the contracts. If you want to give honest evaluation reports to the Government, you had better be independently wealthy. Putting your head above the parapet risks losing jobs and contracts."

Professor Tymms's experience, albeit an extreme example, is all too familiar among academics who have made headlines with work that has displeased the Government.

An investigation into the issue by The Times Higher has raised serious questions about the Government's stated commitment to "evidence-based policy" and academic freedom.

"Ministers in this country rarely tire of citing freedom of speech and academic freedom as examples of how fortunate we are to live in a democracy," said Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union.

"Those freedoms must never be compromised when work is produced that they either disagree with or find unpalatable."

This year, Simon Davies, a visiting fellow of the London School of Economics, spoke to The Times Higher about how he had been personally "vilified" by the Government after the publication of a report he had co-written that questioned Home Office plans for ID cards.

He warned that the Government risked another suicide, such as that of government scientist David Kelly.

Edgar Whitley, one of his colleagues and a co-author of the ID report, said this week: "We part joked that we were on suicide watch. Everyone - the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary - was criticising him [Mr Davies]. They still seem to be wanting a fight on the ID card issue now."

Dr Whitley said that his team remained resolute, after receiving unequivocal backing from LSE director Sir Howard Davies. But he added: "I worry for academics who criticise the Government and who don't have such support from their institution's head."

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, said it had become routine for the Government to simply rubbish academic critics.

Last week, his research made headlines with a report that claims that the Government's £224 million plan for a mass database of 12 million children would be a waste of money and might even endanger children.

The Department for Education and Skills refused to debate the issue in the media, issuing a dismissive statement that questions the report's "objectivity and evidence base".

The dismissal was particularly "disgraceful", Professor Anderson said, because the DfES had been provided with a copy of relevant sections of the report months in advance and had taken the opportunity offered to comment on its methodology and findings.

"This is a report of 200 pages with many footnotes. It is as thorough a piece of academic research as you're likely to find. Any critic of a decision once taken is hostile. It is enemy fire that has to be dealt with."

His colleague Eileen Munro, reader in social policy at the LSE, said: "The Government is not embracing evidence-based policy in the spirit that you would like to see."

Hilary Rose, emeritus professor of sociology at City University, criticised the thinking behind the Government's £60 million UK Biobank project earlier this year, aimed at understanding the interaction between genes and the environment to help understand how diseases such as cancerand diabetes develop in populations.

She said that the consequences of being identified as a government critic were subtle but powerful.

"I was told that I was too political to be given a research grant about something very tame indeed. However, we are not yet at the stage that the US is at with interference.

"Anyway, if you are a left-wing feminist, you don't expect to be treated with love," she added.

John MacBeath, professor of educational leadership at Cambridge University, produced a report for the National Union of Teachers in 1997 that argued that "self-evaluation" by schools produced a better picture of standards than Ofsted inspections.

He was so concerned about attacks from Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools at the time, that he and two colleagues "got together and talked about taking legal action". "We didn't pursue it though," he added.

"It was upsetting because we didn't know what the wider public would be thinking. We had no kind of riposte. I felt that it was not just Chris Woodhead criticising me, but the whole of the Government."

But Professor MacBeath said that the Government was finally learning its lesson, in the field of education at least. "The climate has shifted," he said.

"Government has been required to listen to what academics have to say. Government has learnt the lessons of personal vilification. The row is over now."

Ian Loader, of the Oxford Centre for Criminology, found himself shunned by his former government contacts after a critique of the Government's approach to tackling crime, but just last week found himself brought back in from the cold.

He said that academics should stop being so sensitive about government attacks. "Academics are naive if they think that the Government is not going to try to discredit their work if they present research that is contrary to their policies. This is not like peer review."

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk

  • The Government definitely does not want evidence, although their rhetoric is entirely different... They just care about it if it fits their plans - Sir Michael Rutter , Institute of Psychiatry
  • Government seems to have some contempt towards academics in that it doesn't seem to take them very seriously - Ian Loader , professor of criminology, Oxford University
  • Putting your head above the parapet risks losing jobs and contracts - Peter Tymms , professor of education, Durham University
  • It was the London School of Economics that was rubbished rather than us as individuals - Edgar Whitley , LSE
  • The Government doesn't try to silence or attack its academic critics as far as I can see. It is much more subtle than that. You might not be considered the "right person" for research funding - Hilary Rose , emeritus professor of sociology, City University
  • We talked about taking legal action because we felt there had been a vilification campaign - John MacBeath , Cambridge University
  • It is how the Government's PR people have come to operate over the past nine years, not just academics, everybody is rubbished in this way who dares to criticise - Roy Anderson , Cambridge University
  • The Government is not embracing evidence-based policy in the spirit you would like to see - Eileen Munro , LSE


Evidence against policymakers "What matters is what works," said Prime Minister Tony Blair in January 1999.

New Labour would take a "post- ideological" approach to policymaking, academics were reassured, where policies would be based on evidence of what works, not on political dogma.

David Blunkett, then Education Secretary, summed up the thinking in a 2000 speech to the Economic and Social Research Council, when he attacked the "seam of anti-intellectualism running through Government".

But six years on, a Commons Science and Technology Select Committee report accuses ministers of distorting evidence in science and social sciences to fit policies.

After a nine-month inquiry, the report concludes that there needs to be a "radical re-engineering" of the way the Government uses science.

Evan Harris MP, the Liberal Democrats' Science Spokesman and a member of the committee, said: "Abuse of the term 'evidence-based' is a form of fraud that corrupts the whole use of science in Government."

Research connected to drug policy came in for particular criticism. Dr Harris said this area was an "evidence-free zone".

Committee chair Phil Willis, a Lib Dem MP, said: "Governments have a right to make policy because of sociological reasons or because of political imperatives, but what they don't have a right to do is to say that this is based on sound scientific evidence when it isn't."

The committee says in the report that it is "extremely concerned" to hear allegations from a number of academics that government departments "have been commissioning and publishing research selectively to 'prop up'

policies".

The committee highlights allegations by Tim Hope, a criminologist at Keele University, who worked with the Home Office on crime statistics.

He said: "It was with sadness and regret that I saw our work ill-used and our faith in Government's use of evidence traduced."

He told MPs that the Home Office had decided to write up only one of the two case studies on burglary reduction he had submitted. "Presumably because the area-wide reduction (in burglary) was greater here than elsewhere," he said.

He said some researchers were told not to present work paid for by the Home Office at a conference at Bangor University in July 2003. He believes this was because the department wanted to control the way the information came out.

Reece Walters, a criminologist at Stirling University, said: "The Home Office is interested only in rubber-stamping the political priorities of the Government of the day."

The committee says that "various commentators have drawn attention to flagship Government policies that appear to have been developed in the absence of any convincing evidence that they would work."

It cites Sir John Krebs, former chairman of the Food Standards Agency, who attacked the lack of evidence and costings behind the Government's policy to ban junk food from school vending machines, announced last year, and its drive to tackle obesity.

Judy Nixon, of Sheffield Hallam University, was highlighted for her critique of antisocial behaviour orders. The research into them was based on "anecdote, conjecture and rhetoric", she said.

The committee concludes: "Evidence-based policymaking has been a watchword of this Government and is widely seen as representing best practice. In reality, policies are developed on the basis of myriad factors, only one of which constitutes evidence in its scientific sense. The Government should therefore desist from seeking to claim that all its policies are evidence based."

 

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