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Government tells UKRI to sack advisers over ‘extremist views’

 Image: NTNU [CC BY-SA 2.0]The Conservative Party [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Michelle Donelan wants equality group disbanded due to members' comments on Israel-Hamas war

The UK secretary of state for science has given the chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, Ottoline Leyser, until the end of today to disband a newly formed equality, diversity and inclusion panel.

Michelle Donelan’s unprecedented intervention follows a letter sent by the science secretary to Leyser (pictured left) on Saturday accusing members of the equality panel of sharing “extremist views” on social media in relation to the Israel-Hamas war.

In the letter, Donelan (pictured right) cites the posting history of two members of the panel, Kate Sang of Heriot Watt University and Kamna Patel of University College London. Both academics have now locked their X (formerly Twitter) accounts.

‘Disgust and outrage’

Donelan wrote to Leyser “in the most serious terms” to express “my disgust and outrage at Research England’s appointment of individuals to an advisory group on equality, diversity and inclusion” who “have been sharing extremist views on social media”.

On Thursday Research England had announced a raft of appointments to its panel. Executive chair of the funding council Jessica Corner said at the time: “The appointment of the EDI Expert Advisory Group presents an exciting opportunity for us to receive the expertise, insight and challenge required to help define a set of ambitious actions, which will enable us to meet those objectives.”

Within 24 hours, Donelan had written to Leyser demanding that the group be dissolved. The secretary’s letter says: “Write to me by the end of the next working day with an update on your plans, which I hope will include discontinuing this group.”

Yesterday a brief statement by Leyser, posted on UKRI’s official X account, read: “We are deeply concerned to have discovered these comments. We are conducting an immediate investigation.” UKRI was unable to comment further.

‘Completely unacceptable’ views

In the letter, Donelan said she is “outraged” by a tweet from Sang, “who stated that the UK’s crackdown on Hamas support in the UK was ‘disturbing’”. 

Donelan continued: “Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation. It is completely unacceptable for anyone to be expressing sympathy or support for them. I am staggered that this has occurred full stop.”

While the X account of Sang—who also runs a £3.4 million UKRI-funded project called the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Caucus—has been locked to non-followers, Research Professional News understands that the tweet that “outraged” the secretary of state was the reposting of a Guardian article with the headline “Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in UK”. 

Sang, who is equalities officer on the University and College Union’s Scottish executive, commented on the tweet, saying: “This is disturbing.”

‘Zero tolerance for antisemitism’

The Guardian story, from 8 October, reported on comments made by the home secretary the day after Hamas had launched an attack on Israel killing an estimated 1,400 people and taking 229 hostages. 

After reports of apparent “celebrations” of the invasion appeared on social media, Braverman said: “There must be zero tolerance for antisemitism, or glorification of terrorism on the streets of Britain. I expect the police to use the full force of the law against displays of support for Hamas, other proscribed terrorist groups, or attempts to intimidate British Jews.”

Since the attacks by Hamas, Israel has conducted air attacks and sent troops into Gaza, and over 8,000 people in the territory are now reported to have died since the conflict started.

Donelan’s letter also quotes a second academic, Patel, the chair of the EDI panel, who is said to have “amplified” a post on X “that condemns violence on both sides but makes reference to Israel’s ‘genocide and apartheid’”.

RPN is unable to verify the tweet in question but did contact the two named academics for comment. Neither has yet responded.

‘There has been a serious failure’

The secretary of state’s letter says, “public bodies—especially scientific ones—cannot be seen to take political positions or promote extremist ideologies”, and says Donelan was “shocked” to see “multiple tweets by other members of the group”.

Donelan’s letter also says: “I have always been clear, academic freedom and free speech within the law are sacrosanct. But public bodies, or those representing them, cannot be seen to take political positions, let alone promote extremist ideologies…the political impartiality of our scientific funding system is vital. For this group, there has clearly been a serious failure to be mindful of the need for both real and perceived impartiality.”

As universities minister, Donelan was the architect of the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill.

Her letter notes that the research councils are “entitled” to appoint members of “sub-committees without seeking permission from government” or having prior approval for “the focus of those committees”. But Donelan says “some individuals…appear to have contravened the Nolan Principles of Public Life, which the members signed up to”, and calls on Leyser to take “swift action”.

Donelan also told Leyser: “My strong preference would be that you immediately close this group and undertake an urgent investigation into how this happened.”

Concern over due diligence

The secretary asks the chief executive to report to her by the end of today on her planned course of action and to explain “why no due diligence checks on members were made after 7 October (given they were appointed in July) ahead of the announcement on 26 October, and the steps you are taking to address the real and perceived failures of impartiality that this situation has precipitated”.

The conclusion of Donelan’s letter takes a wider swipe at UKRI’s approach to equality, diversity and inclusion. While the research councils have “important legal duties” under equality legislation, Donelan said: “I am concerned, however, that in recent years UKRI has been going beyond the requirements of equality law in ways which add burden and bureaucracy to funding requirements, with little evidence this materially advances equality of opportunity or eliminates discrimination.”

Donelan adds: “I will write to you in more detail on this in the coming weeks.”

The situation represents a major crisis for the funding bodies. The tone and scope of the letter are unprecedented, with individual academics named as promulgating “extremism”.

Recent ‘wokeism’ criticism

The secretary of state made waves at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month when she attacked the “creep of wokeism” in science, initiating a review into the use of sex and gender questions in scientific research and statistics, to be led by Alice Sullivan of University College London. The report is due to be delivered to the minister and the Cabinet Office within six months.

As universities minister in April of last year, Donelan gave a speech at Policy Exchange setting out the case for the free speech bill, saying: “Authoritarian countries limit their students to a narrow view of the world and teach their students what to think rather than how to think. And they pay a hefty price for it in the long run. 

“I worry that if we allow ourselves to drift towards a more narrow definition of free speech, we risk going down that same dark path as those other countries and compromising what makes our universities world class.”

This story includes excerpts from this morning’s 8am Playbook. If your institution is a subscriber, and you wish to sign up for a personal copy, please fill in this form and add 8am Playbook as the subject. You can unsubscribe at any time.

CORRECTION 30/10 — Day of Research England’s announcement has been corrected