Research commissioned by the government should be published as soon as it is finished and not when it suits ministers, according to a new report.
A judge-led inquiry commissioned by the Sense about Science campaign group found that although there was “no recent evidence” of unfavourable or inconvenient studies being suppressed indefinitely, there were widespread examples of publication being delayed for political reasons.
Report author Sir Stephen Sedley, a former Lord Justice of Appeal who is a trustee of Sense about Science, says that delayed publication “can be as damaging as indefinite suppression” because it deprives MPs and commentators of the timely access they need to be able to engage with policy formation.
Sir Stephen also found that many government departments appeared not to know how many research projects they had commissioned and how many they had published, with only four out of 24 that were asked being able to provide a list.
Many departments have had to spend significant amounts of time and money investigating whether they have previously researched an issue before undertaking new projects, the report says.
Examples given in the report of politically convenient delays in the publication of studies include 2013 research on whether government cuts had caused increase usage of food banks, a Home Office study that found no correlation between the severity of drug laws and the prevalence of drug use, and a paper that challenged the idea that immigrants were forcing UK nationals out of jobs.
The report also highlights studies that were kept under wraps to ensure that publication coincided with the announcement of government policies, such as research into the impact of minimum alcohol pricing and how to tackle excessive sugar consumption.
But Sir Stephen argues that this reduces the ability of experts to engage with the government on policymaking and can deter researchers from carrying out departmental projects in future.
“It seems reasonable that unless public safety is endangered, research should be published when it is complete,” the report says. “Where delays occur, they should be satisfactorily explained. This is no more than the rules governing departmental research require.”
Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science, claimed that it was impossible for the public to know what had happened to government-commissioned research worth millions of pounds.
“If government wants people to trust the research it commissions, and if it wants to go on attracting top-class researchers to its contracts, then it needs to behave accordingly,” she said. “Departments should not be losing valuable research or subjecting it to swings in the political mood.
“The fact that a few departments do maintain a research register, handle awkward findings and publish promptly exposes the excuses of those that don’t.”
A spokeswoman said that the government was committed to “having the most open approach to information of any administration either before it or anywhere else”.
“While the publication of individual pieces of research is a decision for individual government departments, we are clear that access to research is fundamental to effective policy development and wider scientific enquiry across government,” the spokeswoman said. “We are committed to ensuring that transparency, openness and accountability are embedded in everything we do, and we note today’s report, which is a useful contribution to work in this area.”