Purdah imposed on vote-sensitive work

Academics decry ESRC's pre-election silencing as restriction on freedom. Melanie Newman reports

July 9, 2009

Academics are facing attempts to silence them during election periods to ensure that their research does not pollute the political process.

Times Higher Education has learnt that researchers have been subjected to the rules of election "purdah" in a move decried as incompatible with academic freedom.

In a letter to his Liberal Democrat shadow before last month's local and European elections, John Denham, who was then the Universities Secretary, said it was "appropriate" that purdah be imposed on scholars funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

"In practice the restriction on academic freedom is extremely limited as it only applies for a short period of time," he told Stephen Williams, MP for Bristol West.

Purdah is imposed in the run-up to elections, when public bodies are required to suspend activities that could call into question their political impartiality. It is usually interpreted as applying to bodies such as government departments rather than academics.

Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics, said he had supported a group of researchers who complained to the ESRC about the rules.

"I thought it was probably a mistake and that the Government hadn't really intended this to apply to researchers ... but I'm afraid my charitable interpretation was wrong," he said.

"This needs to be rethought - it's ludicrous and unreasonable to expect people labouring in some research project to think about whether or not some publication or speech to a conference could conceivably be interpreted in a political way. It assumes that people are thinking politically, which in my experience is just not the way academics think."

Restricted practice

The edict came to light after researchers were informed that work funded by the ESRC was "subject to certain restrictions" in the run-up to the vote on 4 June.

"During the three-week period prior to these elections ... careful consideration should be applied to publicising any research that could be perceived as politically biased or that comments on policy in a manner that could influence the election," an email from the research council says. "This applies to ESRC researchers and any agents carrying out research on your behalf."

The memo adds that researchers should inform the ESRC of "any activities" that could be seen as contentious 72 hours before they were made public.

An academic affected by the rules contacted Mr Williams, who sought clarification from Mr Denham.

Mr Denham wrote back: "Researchers being funded by the ESRC are using public resources and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (which was scrapped in the recent restructuring of Whitehall) has therefore taken the view that it is appropriate that the guidance should apply to them."

Mr Williams disagreed, describing it as an "unnecessary constraint" on research. "Given that the freedom of the press is a principle that is upheld by the Government regardless of whether there is an election or not, it seems inconsistent for the Cabinet Office to place academic restriction on the publication of research during an election period," he wrote.

The issue proved equally divisive among members of the academic community. Vicky Randall, chair of the Political Studies Association, said the matter was "a worrying development for which there seems little justification", while Andrew Russell, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Essex, said that "an 'extremely limited' effort to restrict academic freedom is still an attempt to restrict academic freedom".

A professor of politics, who asked not to be named, said: "This is indicative of a wider change within the ESRC and a movement towards greater control over research. I suspect it's a strategy to protect its budget by working more closely with Government."

He added that purdah would be difficult to implement. "How are you going to determine whether something is politically biased? If I said that the economic crisis is a consequence of lax regulation by the Government, would that be counted as unacceptable? Also, academics have next to no control over when their work is published," he said.

Balance is the principle

However, Justin Fisher, professor of political science at Brunel University, maintained that "the principle being advanced is the same one that applies to broadcasters during official election campaign periods - namely that as far as possible, they should ensure political balance in their coverage".

Geoffrey Evans, professor of the sociology of politics at the University of Oxford, added: "The ESRC is a public-sector agency using taxpayers' money to promote research. I can imagine that if researchers released politically sensitive findings, or politically biased spin, when the election campaign was in progress it could look very bad. Especially if these findings or spin were beneficial for the governing party that controls ESRC funding.

"So although at first glance people might think this is a restriction on academic freedom, it could also be seen as protecting the democratic process from subversion."

A spokeswoman for the ESRC said that in practice the guidance on appropriate conduct during the pre-election period "rarely impacts on the researchers or investments".

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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