Research restrained

March 8, 2002

One in ten academics has faced pressure to alter, suppress or delay findings, according to a survey by lecturers' union Natfhe. And almost a quarter of respondents said their academic freedom had been restricted.

The survey, to be published next week, reports that 11.2 per cent of Natfhe members have had research results interfered with by either their employer or their research sponsor. Natfhe is concerned that the integrity of research is being compromised by a "crisis" in research funding, combined with increasing dependence on commercial sponsors and increasing workloads.

Preliminary results of the survey of more than 800 union members show that damaging external interference comes in several forms:

  • 1.6 per cent had been pressured into altering results
  • 3.2 per cent had been pressured into delaying publication
  • 1.6 per cent had faced pressure not to publish
  • 1.6 per cent had been pushed into suppressing findings.

Of those who reported pressure, 30 per cent said it was applied by the funding source.

"This is a plainly a major problem, even though it is happening in only a minority of cases," said Tom Wilson, head of Natfhe's universities department. "The survey shows there is a crisis of research funding leading to intolerable pressure to at best delay findings and at worst distort or suppress them."

Almost a quarter of the respondents reported concerns about the erosion of their academic freedom - their freedom to test received wisdom and to put forward controversial ideas.

Asked to rate their academic freedom, 23.6 per cent said their freedom was limited, poor or non-existent, with 17 per cent claiming limited freedom, 5.4 per cent claiming "poor" freedom and 1.3 per cent claiming they had no freedom to choose their areas of academic pursuit.

At the opposite end of the scale, 76 per cent said they felt they had a reasonable or good level of freedom to carry out the research they wanted.

"A standard set of rules is needed, ensuring that academic research, wherever it is carried out and whoever it is funded by, adheres to the highest standards of academic freedom," Mr Wilson said.

The survey, which covered mainly union members in new universities, most of them research-active lecturers, came as Natfhe's executive committee put forward a motion for the union's summer conference criticising the erosion of academic freedom.

It says: "The freedom to question received wisdom and critically test ideas is theoretically enshrined in the 1988 Education Act, yet research that cannot attract external funding is constantly being squeezed while external funders retain ownership of research and can restrict publication. Few academics have the time or facilities to carry out independent research."

This echoes concerns by the Association of University Teachers, which is calling for a research ombudsman.

The Natfhe survey also found that academics have less time for research as their teaching burden increases. Asked how much time they take each year for formal research and scholarly activity, Natfhe found that the majority of respondents, 54 per cent, said they took no more than three weeks.

The survey, carried out for Natfhe by consultant Labour Research, will form part of the union's submission to the comprehensive spending review. It will show that lecturers and academics are taking on more teaching and administration - with a big majority reporting substantial increases in workloads - but have less contact time with individual students. A significant minority have reported that they are exceeding their maximum contractual hours for teaching.

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