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Latest timeline of science secretary’s UKRI dispute

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

Key points in Michelle Donelan’s controversial intervention in funder’s equality advisory group, with recent developments

A heated row near the top of the UK R&D system has snowballed over the past few weeks, with open letters, responses to open letters, responses to those letters and further open letters appearing almost daily.

The crux of the debate is UKRI’s recent decision to suspend a Research England equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) expert advisory group while investigating concerns over its members’ views on the Israel-Hamas war raised by science secretary Michelle Donelan (pictured, right).

Here, Research Professional News unpacks the row as it unfolded.

26 October

Research England appoints its first EDI advisory group to develop an equality, diversity and inclusion action plan.

28 October

Government tells UKRI to sack advisers over what it describes as “extremist views”, with Michelle Donelan writing to the funder’s CEO, Ottoline Leyser (pictured, left), asking for the equality group to be disbanded due to some members’ comments on the Israel-Hamas war.

The same day, Leyser writes on X (formerly Twitter): “We are deeply concerned to have discovered these comments. We are conducting an immediate investigation,” sparking a wave of critical reactions by academics who felt the funder had caved in to political pressure.

30 October

Scientists mount a backlash over Donelan’s “censorship” of UKRI, writing in an open letter to the funder that Donelan’s call for the expert advisory panel to be disbanded goes against academic freedom.

The same day, the head of the University and College Union writes to the science secretary, saying she is “extremely concerned” about government interference in UKRI and calling the move a “dramatic overreach” by the government.

31 October

In anticipation of UKRI’s official response to Donelan, academics call on social media for a “robust” reply from UKRI, with some scientists finding the funder’s initial response to the secretary of state’s letter “deeply concerning”.

The same day, UKRI publishes a letter of reply to Donelan, in which it agrees to suspend the advisory panel’s work, on the request of the science secretary, and to launch an investigation into the issue.

Donelan responds by welcoming “UKRI’s shared concern over these social media posts and the launch of an investigation into the comments, the specific group in question and its wider advisory processes so that this cannot happen again”.

1 November

Researchers slam UKRI for failing to defend its equality group, with many academics shocked at UKRI’s response to Donelan.

The same day, policy experts tell RPN that the suspension of UKRI’s equality committee “marks a new low in political intervention” and brand the science secretary’s intervention a “manifest threat to freedom of speech”.

Meanwhile, the row sparks several resignations of the funder’s peer reviewers in protest of UKRI’s handling of the situation.

2 November

UCU says it will issue a formal call on its members to resign from UKRI roles should the funder not reverse the suspension of its equality panel.

Leyser attempts to take some heat out of the row, posting on UKRI’s site: “We are fully committed to the principles of freedom of speech within the law and equality, diversity and inclusion. These are the foundations on which research and innovation excellence is built.

“I am determined to uphold these principles through the actions we are taking, despite the heightened emotions surrounding these debates at the current time.”

She adds: “We want to resolve this as quickly as possible, consistent with taking effective, well-founded decisions. The aim is to bring clear resolution in a way that best supports all of those who serve on our advisory groups, and research and innovation in the UK.

“In line with the principles we espouse, we understand that different people will take different views about the best way to act and we respect their decisions.”

3 November

An open letter from UKRI grant holders criticises the funder’s handling of the row, concluding that “the pace, tone and content of UKRI’s response has been interpreted by many of our colleagues as indicating a total lack of independence from government and a deep unwillingness to defend basic principles necessary to intellectual flourishing and research excellence. We share these concerns.”

6 November

A letter signed by over 500 UK Research and Innovation grantees sent to the national funder objects to its handling of a dispute involving Donelan.

7 November

More academics resign from voluntary posts at UKRI following the agency’s acceding to a minister’s demand that it shutter an advisory panel on equality issues and as the University and College Union asked its members to step down posts at the funder.

8 November

UK Research and Innovation downplays the potential impact on its operations after scores of academics resigned from its peer review bodies.

15 November

Researchers across the UK continue to express outrage after the science secretary told the country’s national funder to suspend the work of an equalities panel.

17 November

UKRI declines to provide any detail on an ongoing investigation into its advisory group on equality, diversity and inclusion.

17/11 UPDATE — Updated with the latest developments.