Inquiry into delayed publication of government-commissioned research unearths chaotic records and weak rules

Posted by ap507 at Jun 03, 2016 11:03 AM |
University of Leicester Professor welcomes new report
  • The UK government spends around £2.5 billion a year on research for policy, but does not know how many studies it has commissioned or which of them have been published.
  • Only 4 out of 24 departments maintain a database of research they have commissioned.
  • Government officials are forced to use Google to track down their department’s research.
  • Review of submitted cases reveals publication of research has been manipulated to fit with political concerns, but poor records conceal the extent of this behaviour.
  • It is clear that rules requiring prompt publication of government-commissioned research are weak and open to political opportunism.

A senior member of the University of Leicester has welcomed a new report relating to government-commissioned research.

A report by former Lord Justice of Appeal, Rt Hon Sir Stephen Sedley into the scale and sources of delayed publication of government research has revealed widespread confusion in the way research commissioned by government is handled, both internally and with the public.

The inquiry was initiated following a spate of media stories about government research reports being suppressed or delayed, allegedly because the findings were politically awkward. Suppression is an issue, as the case studies in the report show. However, of far greater concern is the confusion over rules governing publication, which are open to manipulation and causing millions of pounds of research to be lost from government records. Ghost research is being created: paid for but, unrecorded and unpublished, it becomes unsearchable in the national archives and exists only in the memories of officials.

Sir Stephen’s report finds a lack of clarity about what constitutes government-commissioned research and what is subject to the publication rule. There are significant differences in the way departments report and record research; 11 government departments were unable to provide a list of research they have commissioned; of those, seven said that they didn’t hold that information centrally and it would be too costly to gather. Civil servants who gave evidence to the inquiry reported that departments spend significant time trying to find past studies that they commissioned and paid for.

Recommendations

Sir Stephen concludes with recommendations for action:

  • All government departments should register externally commissioned research in a standardised public register and report its publication, so that this information is available, and continues to be available, to the rest of government, parliament, the research community and the public.
  • Government’s heads of analysis should issue guidance on what constitutes government research.
  • All research contracts should include a commitment to prompt publication and clear plans for the format and process of publication.
  • Government communicators and politicians should be trained to understand and engage with research and should learn from effective handling of difficult subjects by others in government.

Professor Iain Gillespie, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) at the University of Leicester, said:

"This report is both timely and wise. With significant pressures on research budgets across the government and its agencies it is ridiculous that well-grounded research is not accessible to the wider research community as well as to subsequent generations of officials and politicians. The current system ties up scarce research effort often with little outcome to show for it - not for any good reason, simply because the research is not shared.  Universities and the Research Councils have already joined the impact club. Implementing this report will help government departments do the same."

The Rt Hon Sir Stephen Sedley: “The request to report on delay in the publication of external research commissioned by government departments looked straightforward enough. Every department must know what research it had commissioned and what had happened to it. My task would be to pick out any recent cases where publication had been delayed or deferred by government, and to examine the reasons why.

"The discovery that many departments of state either do not possess or cannot easily provide this basic information has given my work and this report a new and unexpected dimension. I hope that the resulting recommendations will do something to move the UK towards a more open mode of government and a better informed civil and political society.”

Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science, which commissioned the inquiry: “If government wants people to trust the research it commissions, and if it wants to go on attracting top class researchers to its contracts, then it needs to behave accordingly. Departments should not be losing valuable research or subjecting it to swings in the political mood. The fact that a few departments do maintain a research register, handle awkward findings and publish promptly exposes the excuses of those that don’t. Sir Stephen has revealed that we don’t know what has become of millions of pounds worth of government-commissioned research because government itself doesn’t know whether it was published, or where it all is now.” 

Nick Ross, broadcaster and Sense about Science trustee, said: “Sir Stephen Sedley has shown that while suppression may not be routine, procedures are so feeble that the outcome is not much different: expensively commissioned findings sometimes fail to see the light of day and weak rules are used to bury unwelcome evidence for long enough to make it stale. But there is good news too. Sir Stephen explains how we can make it easier for Whitehall to give us the facts and for politicians to share intelligence among themselves. If only they knew what they know, policymakers would make a better fist of things, and if only we knew what they know democracy would be healthier. For this is not top-secret stuff concerned with military intelligence or organised crime. It is evidence about straightforward policymaking. Stuff we ought to know. In an afterword to the report Tracey Brown of Sense about Science argues that those in power who fear transparency should learn to trust the public. Given Sir Stephen’s findings there can be no justification to resist her call.”

Dr. Prateek Buch, policy associate at Sense about Science said: “It was great that academics, former ministers, senior civil servants, chairs of parliamentary committees and journalists shared their experiences of government research with Sir Stephen. The inquiry benefited from their frankness on often difficult issues. This was especially valuable given how incomplete the government's own records are.” 

Notes to Editors:

Missing Evidence: An inquiry into the delayed publication of government-commissioned research is available under embargo athttp://bit.ly/25yh3NP, and will be available once the embargo lifts at http://researchinquiry.org.   

For more information contact: Síle Lane at Sense about Science slane@senseaboutscience.org

Case Studies

In addition to issues raised in written and oral evidence, the inquiry reviewed nine cases where allegations of suppression or delay of government research have been made:  The effects of minimum alcohol pricing, Reducing sugar consumption, The horsemeat scandal, The effect of immigration on unemployment, International comparison of drug laws, The increasing use of food banks, Choosing a GP away from where you live, The minimum age for a marriage entry visa, The effect of fracking on house prices.

More about the Inquiry

The inquiry was commissioned by Sense about Science, a charity that promotes understanding and use of scientific evidence and challenges its misrepresentation. It was supported by a grant from the JRSST, a charitable trust endowed by The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Limited.

The Rt Hon Sir Stephen Sedley led the inquiry. Sir Stephen is a Privy Counsellor and former Lord Justice of Appeal, and has served as an ad hoc judge of the European Court of Human Rights. He is a Trustee of Sense about Science.

The inquiry was launched in September 2015, and received submissions from the academic community including researchers and professional bodies, Chief Scientists and others in the civil service, politicians including chairs of Select Committees, the media and other interested parties. For a full list of witnesses and consultees to the inquiry contact Sense about Science.

For more on the terms of the inquiry, please visit: http://researchinquiry.org

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