Researchers are being pressured by government into publishing 'politically useful reports'. Democracy needs independent scrutiny
By Prateek Buch
11:20AM GMT 16 Jan 2014
Just how independent is independent research into government policy? It emerged last week that the Home Office may have pressured researchers at the University of Sheffield to delay publication of a study on the effects of minimum alcohol pricing. Dr Sarah Wollaston MP isn’t amused that the academics agreed to the Home Office request, suggesting it hindered discussion of the evidence.
This is not the first time government has sought to interfere with academic research to suit its own agenda, and sometimes they do so in more damaging ways than simply delaying publication. Last year, Edward Page, the London School of Economics professor of public policy, surveyed policy researchers, who gave dozens of examples of government pressing for “politically useful reports.”
Page found “sufficient evidence… to suggest that governments do lean on researchers” at the planning and reporting stages of research. While this interference does not appear to directly affect the overall conclusions reached, half of the respondents to Page’s survey agreed when asked if they were pressed to make "substantial… changes that affect the interpretation of your findings or the weight that you might give them." Where researchers bow to this pressure, we lose confidence in the reports as accurate, independent evaluations of policy.
Should this – and the agreement of the Sheffield alcohol researchers to “align our publication with the Government's response to the Alcohol Strategy” – alarm researchers investigating public policy? While Page himself says “If an academic says they can make the report less astringent in terms of some of the comments included, is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t think so,” not everyone would share his laid-back attitude.
If government exerts pressure on researchers to produce convenient results, or to only publish when it suits them, it devalues the independent scrutiny upon which democracy relies. The pressure to alter reports before they’re published was presented by some academics in Page’s survey as a dialogue with government “to ensure [the reports] did not look bad”. But it would be far more appropriate for researchers to conduct their investigations independently, and to present their findings, and for any "dialogue" to happen transparently and in public, after the results are known. Anything less subverts the scientific process and undermines the analysis of whether a policy is effective.
Not everyone sees it that way – some, like Prof Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at Defra, want to restrict the role of research and researchers in the policy process. This threatens the independence of scientific advice and evaluation, which is why the principles of scientific advice to government are so important. These principles were drafted by scientists after Prof David Nutt was sacked as chief drugs advisor in 2008, and integrated into the Ministerial code to emphasise respect for academic freedom and independence. They clearly state that reasons for rejecting scientific advice should be made transparently known, not fudged by altering or delaying reports.
Government operatives – whether civil servants, party figures or ministers – should tread carefully when delaying and interfering with the research process. If the independence of scientific advice and evaluation continues to be ignored, those of us who see evidence as a vital ingredient of effective public policy will need to be more vocal.