Top criminologist urges boycott of state grants

Ministers accused of using academics to validate their policy decisions. Melanie Newman reports

April 17, 2008

A leading criminologist has called on academics to boycott Home Office research grants, accusing the Government of using academics to provide "endorsement for political priorities" only.

Reece Walters, a professor at The Open University, says in a new monograph, Critical Thinking about the Uses of Research: "We live in a society where Government manipulates and cherry-picks criminological knowledge and produces distorted pictures of the 'crime problem'."

He has called on senior academics to cease providing consultancy advice or taking research grants from the Home Office or Scottish Executive.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Walters said his position was based on personal experience.

In 1994, as a research fellow in criminology at La Trobe University in Australia, he was commissioned by the South Australian Attorney General's department to report on a multimillion dollar community-based crime prevention initiative.

When Professor Walters concluded that local people had been let down by the department, the Australian Government refused to pay the outstanding A$32,000 (£14,900) fee for the research and threatened legal action against him and the report's co-author over their plans to discuss their findings at an academic conference.

"My wife had given birth to twins, I had ABC TV on my doorstep and no money coming in, so I took a cleaning job," Professor Walters said. "My experience was both intellectual and very personal. Does that cloud the way I view this issue? No, but it does show me that there is a profound personal and emotional side to the suppression of research. I have met people who have lost their academic confidence."

He joined the University of Stirling in 2002 and in 2003 the Scottish Executive commissioned him and a research team to evaluate a pilot youth court.

The report was critical. When the Scottish Executive delayed publication, Professor Walters published an article in 2006 highlighting its most critical points.

The executive said the team had breached its contract and refused to pay £15,000 of the remaining research grant. Stirling launched a disciplinary investigation against Professor Walters - in an act he describes as one of "institutional cowardice" designed to placate the executive - but dropped the case.

"I'm still happy to talk to government officials," he said. "There are civil servants who are calling out for critical voices. I've had discussions with people who say they really want the truth."

Tim Hope, a professor in Keele University's department of criminology, who co-authored the Critical Thinking monograph, suggested that an "unofficial boycott" was already operated by the Home Office against some criminologists.

He added: "A lack of independence has allowed Home Office ministers and their senior officials to penetrate the entire research process with the sole aim of corralling research and statistics to validate the policy of the day."

He said many in the field would welcome a "fully independent authority" for supporting crime and justice research.

Mike Hough, director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at King's College London, said: "Crime policy research is inherently political, and government funders sometimes overstep the line in trying to control their research providers. But refusing to engage with them is not a sensible response.

"The key to being able to 'speak truth to power' is to avoid dependency on government funding - which is not the same thing as refusing government money - and to seek multiple routes to policy influence."

A Home Office spokesman said that its research is carried out "to the highest scientific standards" and said that the recently published Government Office for Science Review "commented on the soundness of the Home Office's bid appraisal and peer review processes".

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