Last week, RCUK, a non-departmental government body that administers the seven UK research councils, issued purdah guidance to universities and research institutes in emails that were met with confusion and protest by many in the academy. The guidance “strongly advises” anyone in receipt of research council funding—some 50,000 researchers, or about a quarter of all academic staff in the UK—from publicising their research until a new Government is formed after the General Election on 8 June.
The guidance encompasses not just lecturers, professors and those leading large-scale research projects, but also several thousand PhD and Masters students whose research is enabled by public funding. It applies not just to those working on politically-sensitive subjects, but to all those in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM subjects. Whether they are analysing recent voting patterns, investigating child poverty, studying medieval illuminated manuscripts, or experimenting in molecular biology, anyone in receipt of public funding is being instructed not to speak about their work as the country gears towards the election.
The research councils have issued little rationale for the imposition of purdah on researchers. The guidance states that:
“As non-departmental public bodies the Research Councils are bound by purdah during a pre-election period. […] During this time we are unable to engage in any activities that might in any way influence the outcome of the election and must avoid competition with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public.”
But the Research Councils do not own the research they have funded. Neither does the Government. In the absence of an explanation from RCUK, it is difficult to understand what the justification can be for extending pre-election purdah from their own activities to encompass anyone who is funded by them. When approached for comment, RCUK suggested that the issue had become “lost in translation”, and acknowledged that purdah applies solely to the research councils themselves. Yet the guidance sent by RCUK to universities and research institutes explicitly warned that “the purdah restrictions extend to Research Council funded research and researchers and any sub-contractors that are employed as part of the research project.”
Worse still, it is unclear where RCUK’s attempt to regulate the research they have funded ends and the policing of academics’ own opinions begins. If called upon to provide “expert comment” to the media about the election or (still more vaguely) “local issues”, researchers must not mention that they have been funded by the research council in question. The guidance directs researchers, too, to give “due care and attention” to what they write online and on social media.
Is this “due care” intended to apply solely to comments that have emerged as a direct result of funded research projects, or about anything that might pertain to UK politics? Even for those who are working on topics seemingly unrelated to contemporary politics and “local issues”, it is impossible to wholly disentangle academics’ research from the opinions that, as citizens, they have every right to express.
The serious issue at stake, here, is that in instructing researchers not to acknowledge the source of their funding, the research councils are effectively asking academics who seek to engage with the public on political issues not to provide credentials for their own expertise. Stating that their research is publicly funded is one of the ways in which academics can signal that their research really matters. When applying for funding from a research council, academics must demonstrate that their research is of the highest quality, and must either be of real intellectual urgency or have a wider impact beyond their own fields.
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It is absolutely right that publicly funded research should be of demonstrable impact to society. Research councils rightly demand that, once published, any publicly funded research should be freely available in the public domain. They also stipulate that researchers must explicitly acknowledge the source of their funding. In the normal run of things, the research councils place a high value on public engagement: encouraging researchers to address audiences beyond their ivory towers, and to engage with a range of social groups in meaningful ways. Take the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)’s public engagement statement, for example:
“Social science research plays an important role in our society. The ESRC believes that by raising public awareness of the social sciences and encouraging their involvement in both social and science-related research this will translate into real benefits for society and individuals. […] Engaging the public with research ensures that the work of researchers, departments and universities is relevant to society, [and] helps empower people and communities.”
Yet the purdah guidance reverses this position completely: researchers are told to think twice before addressing the public during an election campaign, are discouraged from publicising their research, and are expressly instructed not to mention how their research has been funded. The message being sent is that academic research is politically dangerous, as it might influence how the public votes. But what is the public funding of academic research for, if not to influence how people feel about the society in which they live, and how they might want it to be governed? Is this not what is meant by “empower[ing] people and communities”?
In a certain light, the imposition of purdah on researchers seems genuinely sinister. The guidance goes further than suggesting that academics must not “engage in any activities that might in any way influence the outcome of the election”; they must also “avoid competition with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public”. Researchers are being told that their research either pertains to aspects of democratic citizenship, in which case they must remain silent during the democratic process, or else that their research competes with the businesses of democracy, in which case they must remain silent so as not to detract attention from candidates’ election campaigns.
This kind of attitude towards academics is, itself, dangerous. Increasingly, politicians are failing to engage in debate about the substance of their own party’s policies, in favour of repeating mantra-like slogans to cherry-picked audiences of supporters, as “strong and stable, strong and stable…” echoes throughout factories emptied of workers.
The two most widely discussed moments of the Brexit campaign were a demonstrable lie on the side of a bus, and Michael Gove’s populist, anti-intellectual statement that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Meanwhile, the research councils are instructing the same experts not to detract from the important work of party-political electioneering—by not publicising research that might well inform public debate, and not sharing data that might enable voters to question the assertions made by candidates fighting to keep or gain power.
In these turbulent political times, we need academics who spend their professional lives dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge to share their expertise with people who will be going into voting booths in six weeks’ time to determine the future direction of the country.
There are social scientists and medical researchers working on public health policy who might have something valuable to say about the NHS, historians researching the EU who might help us re-think our understanding of Brexit negotiations, and education researchers who might provide much-needed evidence about the relationship between grammar schools and social mobility.
But we also need researchers to keep talking about Tudor drama, classical poetry, medieval kingship, Victorian workhouses, Flemish art, colonialism in Africa, philosophy of mind, the French Revolution, Tinder, internet pornography—any subject, no matter how apparently unrelated to contemporary politics. They are called the Humanities for a reason.
At its best, humanities research makes us question our assumptions about the nature of society and culture, and the nature of human motivation. It can illuminate the hidden ideological viewpoints about what people are and how they should live their lives, which often lie behind statements that politicians hold to be “just common sense”. Learning about other cultures and other people’s viewpoints can help us empathise with people we might otherwise view as “social problems” and lift us out of the echo chambers we construct on social media.
We need to learn lessons from recent phenomena such as the alarming rise of “fake news”, and the terrifying resurgence of Holocaust denial amongst an expanding global far right. We need academics to engage with the public more than ever. And academics need to be able to show that their findings are based on thousands of hours of research, which has been deemed worthy of public funding and upheld by their peers to stringent standards of truth. Otherwise, we’re all just shouting at each other.