Life-risking 'spy' plan pulled

October 20, 2006

Academic protests have forced the Foreign Office to delay an anti-terror project. Phil Baty reports

Two research councils put plans to enlist academics in the War on Terror on hold this week after they were accused of risking the lives of British researchers in Muslim countries.

The Times Higher learnt that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had been inviting selected academics to bid for funding under a £1.3 million project called "Combating Terrorism by Countering Radicalisation". The project is focused on countries identified by MI5's Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre.

The FCO project, run in partnership with the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, provoked a furious response from academics who claimed it was tantamount to asking researchers to act as spies for British intelligence.

Critics claimed the move endangered the lives of researchers, particularly social scientists and their sources in Muslim countries, whether working on the project or not.

The ESRC this week delayed the project to enable further consultation as a result of serious concerns raised by academics through The Times Higher .

Details of the project emerged as The Times Higher obtained a new version of controversial government guidance on combating extremism on UK campuses.

This suggests that university staff are trained by Special Branch officers to spot and report extremist behaviour.

According to documents seen by The Times Higher, the FCO project will examine six regions - Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, North Africa and the Gulf and six specific countries, including Turkey, Jordan and Sudan.

Academics would be asked to "scope the growth in influence and membership of extremist Islamist groups in the past 20 years", "name key figures and key groups" and "understand the use of theological legitimisation for violence".

"Key topics" include "radicalisation drivers and counterstrategies in each of the countries studied" and "future trends likely to increase/decrease radicalisation".

James Fairhead, an anthropology professor at Sussex University who sits on both the ESRC's strategic research board and international committee, has written to ESRC governors expressing concern that the project has had "input" from MI5.

In a letter written last week, he said he was "appalled" that the project has not been considered formally by either of the ESRC boards he sits on and brought the independence of the ESRC into question.

He said that the project "might endanger British social scientists overseas". He told The Times Higher that he was "deeply worried" that academics would be expected to name extremists.

John Gledhill, chair of the Association of Social Anthropologists, said:

"This raises fundamental ethical issues. People feel that it smacks of the Cold War use of academics in counter-insurgency activities - essentially using academics as spies."

In a letter to members, he said that the issue was part of the "war against terror's increasing influence on academic life".

Martha Mundy, reader in anthropology at the London School of Economics, circulated a letter to members of the anthropology association warning of the physical danger to academics and wider concerns about independence of research. She says the programme entailed a series of specific "intelligence-driven" questions that "start from the premise of a link between Islamism, radicalisation (nowhere defined) and terrorism".

"Such a programme should be neither funded by, nor administered through, the AHRC and the ESRC, as it violates the principles of transparent competition, " Dr Mundy writes.

Philip Esler, AHRC chief executive, said: "It is appropriate that the AHRC enables the powerful intellectual resources in the UK to focus on particular public policy issues."

A spokeswoman for the ESRC said the charge that the project was driven by intelligence was "wholly inaccurate".

"This is academic-driven research with an academic basis," she said. "This is crucial for our integrity." She also confirmed that it would be open to full competition.

Adrian Alsop, director of research at the ESRC, said that while the projects would involve some "limited" fieldwork, all would be subject to rigorous ethical approval to ensure researchers' safety.

He said the process had been "transparent and open", with 100 academics attending three seminars on the subject. An FCO spokesman said that the office was working with the research councils to ensure that the work was independent, transparent, academically sound and properly peer-reviewed.

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