Ministers vilify researchers

December 1, 2006

Politicians are accused of discrediting academics and distorting results, report Phil Baty and Jessica Shepherd.

The Government stands accused of undermining academe's "vital independence" after academic critics revealed how far politicians have gone to discredit them.

Academics who have hit the headlines for research that challenges government policies have told The Times Higher how they have been subjected to concerted campaigns of "vilification", have had their work publicly rubbished and have been subjected to repeated personal criticisms.

Some said that they had suffered psychological problems and long-term damage to their career after speaking out, with their research funding drying up.

The anecdotal evidence emerged weeks after the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee raised "extreme concerns" about allegations that the Government manipulated research findings to favour its agenda. The committee concluded last month that the Government should stop claiming its policies were "evidence-based".

Sally Hunt, University and College Union joint general secretary, said: "It is completely unacceptable for academic work to be rubbished because it does not fit with the Government's own agenda."

Boris Johnson, Shadow Minister for Higher Education, said: "In a free society, universities are the vital independent repositories of research, discussion and debate. There is nothing more damaging for political freedom than to close down that debate in universities."

He said that in addition to the often devastating effects of being on the receiving end of the Government's public relations machine, academics were controlled in subtle ways through funding and regulation. "The most worrying thing is that academics should be inhibited for saying things they think may be displeasing to their ultimate political masters. But they should not have ultimate political masters."

The revelations follow a survey reported in The Times Higher in October that found that 80 per cent of academics thought that scholars could no longer "speak truth to power".

Eight academics this week detailed how their work was attacked because it raised questions about the success of government policies. Many more critics declined to comment, reflecting concern over raising heads above the parapet.

The testimonies include that of Edgar Whitley of the London School of Economics. He describes how his colleague Simon Davies, who worked with him on research that criticised the Government's plans for ID cards, was put on "suicide watch".

Peter Tymms of Durham University, who was savaged over his findings on school homework, said that "putting your head above the parapet risks losing jobs".

Michael Rutter, a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry who criticised the Government after advising it over its Sure Start programme for families in disadvantaged areas, said: "The Government definitely doesn't want evidence, although the rhetoric is entirely different."

The Prime Minister's office declined to comment.  

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