Research Posts: Whose report is it anyway?: Fears of political interference in social policy research are running high, reports Maureen O'Connor

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The Independent Online
A senior unnamed academic who plans to leave the country for an overseas chair says simply that she is going because it is no longer possible to conduct research involving schools in an ethical and responsible way in England.

Much of the academic community involved in research in education, health, criminology and a range of social science disciplines is also deeply unhappy. Their gripe is about the way in which much of their work is controlled by government- funded agencies and the results published - or in some cases not published at all.

Education researchers find themselves in the front line because of the highly contentious nature of recent policy changes, for which evidence is being adduced only after legislation, rather than before. Evaluation of the national curriculum and testing regimes in particular has been bedevilled by constant revisions, which are not yet over.

Then there is the recently reported success of the Reading Recovery, a programme developed in New Zealand to help poor readers. It was enthusiastically embraced by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, and the Government backed a pounds 14m trial programme. Its success in helping poor readers would appear to be good news by even the most political of criteria.

But there are less welcome implications to be drawn from the London Institute of Education team's interim results. First, that extra help with phonics - a teaching method to which more than one education minister has committed himself - is not much help to slow readers. Second, that there is no commitment from the Government to continue funding the pilot programme, however successful it might prove.

Dr Nigel Norris of the University of East Anglia has been studying what he regards as the increasingly fraught interface between academic research into social policy areas and politicians. It is politicians who appoint the quangos that more often than not provide funds for research. He says very few researchers are happy with the organisation and management of commissioned research.

The British Education Research Association has become so uneasy about the situation that it published a Code of Ethics last year and is considering setting up a 'helpline' for academics worried by contractual constraints and interference in their work. Other academic bodies have already approached Bera for advice on drawing up similar codes of practice.

It is an area where rumours abound and few academics will complain publicly because of the risk of being branded trouble-makers and not getting another next grant. But an unusually public cri de coeur surfaced in the journal English in Education. Urszula Clark, of Nene College, Northampton, worked on the evaluation of the first national English curriculum, reputedly an extremely fraught project with 13 redrafts of the final report demanded by the former National Curriculum Council.

It was, she wrote, 'like working in a dark, ever-receding tunnel . . . trust, integrity, academic freedom, none of these seemed to be of any consequence'.

'There are two major complaints coming from all sides to Bera,' says Professor Helen Simons of Southampton University. 'First, that commissioning agencies are changing criteria after a contract has been agreed, giving a heavy steer on direction and demanding weekly or monthly meetings to discuss progress.

'Second, that funding agencies are abusing their contractual right to determine what can be published and when.'

Specific complaints about contracts include the right of the funding agency to terminate at short notice while the research team has no such right; complete control by the agency of all data; and a prohibition on researchers speaking to the media without an agency officer present.

Dr Norris thinks that it is difficult to decide whether what is going on is the result of direct political interference or whether civil servants and quango officers are tailoring projects in the light of what they believe their political masters require. Either way, he says, it is alarming because it means that research briefs are being defined by people who either have an ulterior motive or do not have the professional expertise to do it.

Bodies as various as the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the Department of Employment and the Health Education Authority are placing restrictions on publication and dissemination. That is wrong in principle, Dr Norris says. 'It is a bit rich if publicly funded research is not accessible to the public.' It would never be tolerated in the United States, he says, and in Scotland government-funded researchers have the right to publish their results three months after the submission of their final report.

Delay in publication is also damaging in a wider sense, Dr Norris believes, because if research results are not published they can never be tested by the normal processes of academic peer review. 'If results are not in the public domain then the quality control system can't operate.' It calls into question the very basis of public policy-making.

(Photograph omitted)

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