State research 'lacks fairness'

April 25, 2003

Fears that the government is seeking to manipulate the research agenda to support its policies intensified this week as new evidence revealed concerns about the fairness and openness of its procedures for procuring £1.4 billion of research each year.

Figures from the National Audit Office, given to The THES, show that almost a quarter of researchers who have recently carried out work for government departments are not happy about the "openness and transparency" of funding decisions. Almost one in five does not believe the procurement process is fair and the same number are not happy about the way their findings are communicated by the government.

Academics and politicians said the findings had implications for the integrity of research commissioned by the government.

Nick Gibb, a member of the House of Commons public accounts committee, said: "To ensure research commissioned by the government is truly impartial and objective, it is essential that the procurement process is absolutely fair and transparent."

In its report, Getting the Evidence, the NAO found that much of the £1.4 billion of research commissioned by government departments each year is wasted as findings are failing to get through to policy-makers. More figures from the NAO show that there is concern among researchers already working with the government that its departments are too secretive about what they commission and why.

The data, based on a survey of 304 researchers who won contracts with one of three government departments in the past five years, show that 23.5 per cent of respondents say they are either "very dissatisfied" or "quite dissatisfied" with the "openness and transparency of the decision-making in funding".

The proportion rises to 25 per cent among researchers who work for the Department for International Development and 31.8 per cent for those who work for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, although the NAO points out that this was taken from a smaller sample.

Some 17 per cent of all the researchers say they are dissatisfied with the "fairness of the decision-making in funding" - up to 18.3 per cent at the DFID and .2 per cent at Defra.

"The whole system urgently needs to be moved out of smoke-filled rooms," a spokeswoman for the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards said. "It is vital everyone can see how researchers are chosen and funded, otherwise politicians are potentially misleading the public about the reliability of the evidence they are using."

Mr Gibb, Conservative MP for Bognor, said: "It is quite difficult enough in Britain as it is to obtain policy research that is not already partial or set up to prove a political point, be it left or right. The one area where we must all be able to rely fully on the objectivity of research is that which the government's own departments commission themselves."

He said the process was open to abuse if research was not commissioned in an open and transparent way. "Any lack of transparency here gives rise to serious and damaging public cynicism."

The NAO's survey says that there are also concerns among researchers about the way their findings are presented - with 17.5 per cent saying they are not happy with "the communication of research findings by the department".

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