Time government master freed the research servants

February 4, 2000

This week, unusually, education secretary David Blunkett has turned his attention to research, especially in the social sciences (page 36). The attention is welcome, but the message is muddled.

Mr Blunkett castigates researchers for a tendency "to address issues other than those directly relevant to the political and policy debate" as if politicians were the only conceivable source of important research topics. He goes on to describe some research as "seemingly perverse, setting out with the aim of collecting evidence that will prove a policy wrong rather than genuinely seeking to evaluate or interpret its impact". This confuses research management, evaluation and dissemination and the actual research process itself, where he betrays a lack of understanding of Popperian falsification and a curious assumption that research should follow policy instead of preceding it.

Mr Blunkett seems to brush aside the long lead times and painstaking working methods of academic research and fails to recognise that those he singles out for praise embarked on the work on which the government is now drawing many years ago. When they did so, the work would have seemed "perverse" to the government of the day. It was not concerned with existing policies but focused on quantifying and analysing problems before proposing ways to tackle them.

This lack of understanding makes Mr Blunkett's warm words about "blue skies" research and researchers "who can challenge fundamental assumptions and orthodoxies" less convincing and less comforting than they might otherwise be. Encouraging a "greater interchange between researchers and policy makers" takes more than seconding another bright postdoc to the already large cohort of Whitehall policy wonks, or organising the sort of academic seminars that marked Mr Blair's early days in Downing Street. These are good fun and give those whose ideas mesh well with the government's a nice warm feeling. People flock to them like chicks to the heat lamp in a rearing shed. But they are less effective for tapping the ideas of those whose findings challenge government assumptions.

Establishing a climate conducive to genuine exchange will be the harder because the education department's track record to date, for example, on the likely effect of removing grants on university applications from potential mature students or how best to train teachers has not been reassuring.

But if Mr Blunkett can now bring about a change of attitude not just in his own department but also in others, it will do nothing but good. At present the government's attitude to research in general and social science research in particular is too instrumental and controlling. There is too much of a master-servant relationship about it. Research is to be servant to the government project: it is to be seen as a source of evidence to support action already decided on and a source of get-rich-quick ideas to be decanted double-quick into the wealth-generating economy.

This is having damaging consequences. Earmarked money tempts people to choose research topics that fit a short-term agenda, while the "perverse", whose ideas might inform policy ten years down the line, are finding themselves short of support. There are worrying signs (page 18) of growing reluctance to speak out. Those whose ideas run counter to official views keep their heads down and those whose ideas have market potential are urged to patent before they publish. Both pressures threaten to slow the spread and testing of ideas within academia and to limit public debate.

If the present administration is serious about becoming what Mr Blunkett calls a "thinking government" - and the strength of British research shown by the citation indices suggests they have much to gain by doing so - a less manipulative approach to academic research will be needed, along with a warmer welcome for people who do challenge assumptions.

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Tel 020 7782 3000 Email editor@thes.co.uk Website www.thesis.co.uk

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