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Academics call for ‘robust’ reply from UKRI to Donelan letter


Some scientists find funder’s initial response to secretary of state’s letter “deeply concerning”

Academics on social media have demanded that UK Research and Innovation give a “robust” response to the secretary of state for science’s letter condemning social media posts related to the Israel-Hamas war.

Some expressed unhappiness on X, formerly Twitter, that the research-funding agency had initially said it was “deeply concerned” about comments made by two members of its newly formed advisory panel, highlighted in Michelle Donelan’s letter to UKRI.

The secretary wrote to UKRI chief executive Ottoline Leyser claiming that posts on X from the equality, diversity and inclusion advisory panellists shared “extremist views”.

Donelan wrote to Leyser after seeing social media posts from Kate Sang of Heriot Watt-University and Kamna Patel of University College London. The minister demanded that the advisory body be shut down.

The agency in its short initial response said it would be “conducting an immediate investigation”.

But many academics have questioned the response. Michael Merrifield, professor of astronomy at the University of Nottingham, asked: “What exactly is it that you will be investigating?”

Others highlighted concerns over freedom of speech they thought UKRI should be defending.

Petra Meier, professor of public health at the University of Glasgow, stated on X, “supporting terrorists is unacceptable”, but added that this was “not what group members have done”.

And Deepti Gurdasani, a senior lecturer in machine learning at London’s Queen Mary University, said the secretary of state’s letter “will have a chilling effect on academics everywhere”. Meanwhile, Eric Lybeck, a lecturer and presidential fellow at the Manchester Institute of Education, suggested that Donelan had thrown “academics under a bus”.

The concerns came as an open letter from more than 2,400 academics called the secretary of state’s letter an “attack on individual freedom of expression and academic freedom”.

Kieron Flanagan, a professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, told Research Professional News that the issue was “a big test for Ottoline Leyser”.

“The secretary of state has put her in an impossible position,” he said, “but, if only because many in the academic community were fearful when UKRI was created that it represented a power grab by ministers; how she responds will determine her credibility with the academic community going forward.”

Research Professional News understands that some experts are concerned about the mental wellbeing and safety impact of naming the two academics in the press. Some also worry about the distress the exchange may have caused to people on campus and the wider community, at a time of heightened antisemitism and Islamophobia.

RPN has approached UKRI and the government’s department for science for comment.

Update incoming

There are now calls for UKRI to take a stronger stance. UKRI said in an update that it would publish its response to Donelan at 5pm today.

Nimer Sultany, reader in law at Soas School of Law, wrote on X that the agency should be “deeply concerned about freedom of speech and academic freedom”. He said he was looking “forward to your [UKRI’s] affirmation of free speech and academic freedom”.

And Katherine Schofield, head of the music department at King’s College London, wrote on X that UKRI’s response had “better be robust and backed by expert independent legal opinion”.