Why I think academics should take part in public inquiries

February 13, 2004

Five years ago this month, Jack Straw, who was then home secretary, announced the findings of the Lawrence inquiry - a "watershed" in policing - to an expectant Parliament. Last week, Straw, now foreign secretary, announced an inquiry to review intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.

There are, of course, fundamental differences between the two. The Lawrence inquiry was conducted in public before a retired judge and his advisers.

The WMD inquiry will comprise Privy Councillors, chaired by Sir Robin Butler, the former cabinet secretary, taking evidence in private.

Sir William Macpherson was given a wide brief to inquire into the "matters arising" from the murder of Stephen Lawrence. This he interpreted broadly to encompass police racism among other important issues. The WMD inquiry terms of reference are narrow, dodging the central question of whether Tony Blair took us to war on a false prospectus. Despite the differences, similar issues may face academics tempted to "stick their oar in".

I had not planned to contribute to the Lawrence Inquiry. At the time, I was overloaded with teaching an unimaginably demanding course for senior police officers and struggling with the page proofs and index of my book Violent Racism . Although I was putting the finishing touches to a 400-page book based on a decade of scholarly research on issues central to the Lawrence Inquiry, I had somehow failed to realise that I was qualified to contribute. It was over lunch with a senior colleague that the idea took root. "If you don't submit research evidence," he asked, "who will?"

In the end, I submitted a copy of my book together with a summary and recommendations. Although it involved lots of extra work, the experience was positive. It was satisfying that my research was quoted and contributed to the inquiry's conclusions. There were unexpected benefits. My over-priced book was reprinted within months of publication. A revised paperback edition and consultancies followed.

The process is demanding. It requires the application of research - often loaded with theory or complex empirical data analysis - to an inquiry's terms of reference. Clear drafting is crucial; remember the old maxim: "If you can be misunderstood, you will be." Submitting to a public inquiry requires the academic to raise his or her head above the ivory tower's parapet. You may be called to defend your research and, later, the outcomes of the inquiry. If your evidence contradicts the inquiry's conclusions, you may be expected to criticise them publicly.

We often feel that academics are ignored in policy debates, their voices drowned out by "media-smart" pundits. The public inquiry provides a moment when scholarly texts carry more weight than they do in the heat of everyday political debate. This is not to say that your evidence will be decisive or even given its due weight, but it is an opportunity to be grasped.

To submit or not to submit? The question depends on what you believe to be the purpose of academia. To contribute to knowledge? To educate? To inform? My view is that for those working in applied fields - such as criminology or security studies - it is part of our role to contribute to policy development and, ultimately, to help make the world safer, but also a freer and fairer place.

Policy decisions - how to ensure fairness in policing or whether or not to go to war - should be based on systematic analysis of evidence. If academics have relevant research evidence, they have a duty to contribute.

If we don't, who will?

Ben Bowling
Professor of criminology and criminal justice
King's College London and the University of the West Indies

Violent Racism: Victimisation, Policing and Social Context is published by Oxford University Press, £19.99.

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