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the UKRI-Donelan furore is a wake-up call on the politicisation of science (external op-ed)

This piece was originally published in Times Higher Education:


There is understandable outrage that Michelle Donelan, the UK’s secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, is seemingly using taxpayers’ money to settle a libel claim launched by Kate Sang, one of two scientists on UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s EDI committee whom she very publicly accused of sending out pro-Hamas tweets after the 7 October attacks. 

But a more troubling issue for us all should be the creeping rise of interference by politicians in UK science.

Before the creation of UKRI as an umbrella group sitting “at the heart of government” (as the body’s inventor, Sir Paul Nurse, put it in his 2015 review), there were seven research councils proudly sitting outside government. These had high-profile chief executives such as the Medical Research Council’s Colin Blakemore, who often acted as independent voices holding government to account. The Michelle Donelan saga reveals how far that independence has slipped in recent years, with the secretary of state feeling confident enough to publicly demand that UKRI take action against a committee of university academics, and the organisation feeling powerless to tell her to take a running jump.

There are other troubling signs of this erosion of independence. Despite a lengthy and exhaustive recruitment process to appoint a new executive chair to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the successful candidate was blocked by ministers who objected to his alleged left-wing politics.

In addition, the publication of new science from UKRI often gets treated as if it’s a government announcement and finds itself on the dreaded communications “grid”, Alastair Campbell’s creative way of making sure No 10 didn’t get any surprises in the news. UKRI’s CEO and its research council executive chairs are all incredibly talented scientists, but are severely restrained from speaking openly in the media, with a tacit understanding that to do so could cause trouble with government.

UKRI insiders tell me this overreach is only getting worse. Even during the pandemic, when we at the Science Media Centre (SMC) were running press conferences on UKRI-funded Covid research, we were often told by government communications that these had to be delayed because approvals had not been received from No 10, or, worse, that the science briefings needed to be timed around Downing Street press conferences – as if five clinical researchers explaining a new immunology study needed to “align” with messaging from then health secretary Matt Hancock and prime minister Boris Johnson. At one stage, a leading government communications official asked me to get scientists to stop disagreeing with government “lines” publicly. I politely pointed out that this was neither possible nor desirable.

This merging of science and politics is not good for the public or government. Opinion polls regularly show that independent scientists enjoy levels of UK public trust that politicians would die for – with scientists polling more than 70 per cent, compared with 10 per cent for politicians. A recent global survey shows how quickly that trust could be undermined if the public were no longer able to see where the science ends and the politics begins, with 53 per cent of respondents to a recent global survey saying that science in their country has become politicised.

The SMC has a fading placard in our office with the slogan, “If it’s not open, it’s not science”. It was left over from an unlikely central London demonstration against the Donald Trump regime’s early attacks on the free speech of US scientists. Here in the UK, the government constraints on open discussion might be more subtle but are no less damaging.

UKRI is the biggest funder of science in the UK, spending billions of pounds of public money on research aimed at addressing society’s biggest questions – from finding the cure for cancer to the innovations that will get us to net zero. Even if technically owned by government, it’s still an arm’s-length body and we need it to be trusted to lead the discussions and debates about which big ideas will deliver the kind of society we all need, even when those ideas are controversial and challenging. The desire by government to make UKRI beholden to its approved “messaging” and overly strident policy “lines” is disastrous for science. It is leading to tensions within the research community and a loss of faith in the funder, neither of which serves anyone.

If anything good is to come out of this saga, it could be a resetting of the relationship between government and UKRI. The first CEO and chair of the new organisation both complained on standing down about undue interference in the organisation, with one joking that if UKRI is an arm’s-length agency, it’s a very short arm.

I also hope that the public outrage at Donelan’s blatant interference in UKRI will embolden the top brass of science. I’ve witnessed plenty of scientists who defy the diktats of government communications officers and live to tell the tale, and we all know that people shouting down the phone at us will go pretty quiet when you repeatedly stand your ground.

Such trust from government would also confer responsibilities on the scientific community, of course. We can’t easily object to the politicisation of science by ministers if scientists act like political lobbyists and go beyond the evidence to advocate for particular policies. The public interest here is in a separation of the space for politics and science. The latter needs to be an open, dynamic place where scientists thrash out in the public eye all the possible ways of solving society’s problems.

The place for UKRI is at the heart of that scientific endeavour – not at the heart of government, and most definitely nowhere near political communications.


This piece contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.


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