Surprise, surprise

March 28, 1997

The cover-up culture continues. Government prorogues Parliament and evades a public report. Crucial evidence fails to reach the principal meat hygiene expert. The nuclear industry withholds costly research from public inquiries.

But these are just the head-line stories. Quasi-government research organisations now regularly agree "no surprises" deals with ministries.

Surely surprise is exactly what innovative research is about. Complex contracts, originally devised to counter industrial espionage, now control government research about nursery schools.

Civil servants currently instruct that research reports should not be published until after the general election. How do they justify hiding publicly-funded information in case it influences public choice in a democratic process?

Entities that abuse the integrity of inquiry will eventually fail to attract the best researchers. Working for progressive organisations such as the Rowntree Foundation is already recognised as more worthwhile than being in the clutches of civil servants.

To make the point, academics might start a "slow boycott" of government work. If there is no protest, those who whistle-blow, leak, and break confidentiality will become the sole protectors of public interest. This has its place, but ultimately is not an attractive scenario.

Christopher Williams School of education University of Birmingham

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