Labour policy poses threat to freedom

March 31, 2000

The government's disregard for academic freedom has become dangerous and damaging, academics and politicians have warned.

Long-standing fears about ministers' attitudes to research intensified this week with the emergence of a government policy document that favours narrowing the European research agenda at the expense of "curiosity-based research". Separate research by the Liberal Democrats has found an increase in government control of research commissioned by its departments.

The policy document, an Office of Science and Technology consultation paper, which addresses Britain's research policy position for the European Commission's Framework 6 programme, is "offensive, bizarre and damaging", said John Field, a senior government education adviser.

The OST's document makes clear ministers' strong policy preferences for using "science effectively in support of government departments' objectives". Ministers also appear to favour a narrowing of the social science research agenda to focus on policy areas, according to Professor Field.

The document expresses the OST's concern that new EU member states "are more likely to favour traditional approaches to research management, possibly with a bias towards curiosity-driven research". The document, which urges resistance, says: "This will make it more difficult to deliver on our objectives I and means that it is important for us to lobby the commission and our main European partners at an early stage." The document also calls for the EC's directorates-general to be customers for European Union research, a complete departure from the present system.

Professor Field, professor of lifelong learning at the University of Warwick, said: "There should be concern about what this says about government attitudes to academic freedom. The comments are not only bizarre, but are rather offensive. It is inherent in the set of proposals that there is a concern to control the research agenda and indeed to bring it more closely into line with policy preoccupations."

Professor Field accused ministers of seeking to "narrow down the social science agenda in Europe, until it becomes a straightforward audit of social policy".

Jeremy Richardson, director of the Centre for European Politics, Economics and Society at Oxford University, said that the Economic and Social Research Council's own programme-based research was stifling blue-skies research, forcing academics to scramble for earmarked money. "The job of academics is to debunk conventional wisdom. Both government and funding agencies should avoid any hint of dirigisme."

The concerns have been embraced by Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat education spokesman and a former academic, who has been researching government control of research commissioned by its departments.

Dr Harris found that of 15 government departments that answered, 12 said they "may veto publication". Nine of the 15 departments said that they "may make amendments" to researchers' work, while only two said they could not. Fourteen departments said that researchers need government permission to discuss their findings.

Despite advice from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals that "under no circumstances should the university allow the sponsor the right to delay publication", nine government departments said that they could control the publication date.

Dr Harris said: "This is not just sleaze, it is undermining the fabric of the research community. It is deplorable and disgraceful."

THE CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT

* The researcher "shall incorporate the department's amendments (into the final report)". DFEE contract clause, 1998.

* Researchersshall not do anything "in relation to this contract I that may attract adverse publicity to the department". DFEE contract clause, 2000.

* "The minister shall have the right to disclose, copy or otherwise distribute I or use in any way, information arising out of the project."

Ministry of Agriculture.

* "The contractor shall not communicate with representatives of the media I unless specifically granted permission to do in writing."

DETR contract clause.

* Final report data "shall be produced in a form to be agreed with the Liaison officer". Department of Health.

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