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Chair of UKRI advisory group at heart of Donelan libel row resigns

Images: UK Government [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr; UCL; UK Research and Innovation

Kamna Patel accuses national funding agency of “mollifying politicians” and showing “no care” to advisers

The chair of an advisory panel to the UK’s national research funding agency has resigned, following an explosive row sparked by the science secretary Michelle Donelan.

In an excoriating letter, Kamna Patel from University College London said that Research England and UK Research and Innovation had shown “no care or understanding towards external advisers” while having “gone to great lengths to appease the secretary of state”.

The row was sparked last October when Donelan published a letter to UKRI on X (formerly Twitter) accusing some members of Research England’s expert advisory group for equality, diversity and inclusion of sharing “extremist views” about the Israel-Hamas war on social media.

Patel, who was explicitly named alongside one other academic in Donelan’s letter, had been announced as chair of the advisory group two days earlier. UKRI suspended the group but reinstated it in March after an investigation fully exonerated its members.

It subsequently emerged that Donelan had settled a libel complaint against her resulting from her false allegation that a group member had expressed “sympathy or support” for Hamas, costing the taxpayer upwards of £50,0000 and leading to calls for Donelan to resign.

‘Spurious grounds’

In a letter to the executive chair of Research England, Jessica Corner, sent on 3 June [and published in full by Research Professional News], Patel said she “cannot remain as chair and legitimate the bad decisions of Research England and UKRI… to investigate me for ‘extreme views’ on such spurious grounds and on the mere say-so of the secretary of state”.

Patel said the agencies’ actions were not “reasonable, fair and the best option before you” and accused UKRI of launching an investigation “based on a vexatious complaint, where they could not, and did not, tell me on what evidence they were acting [or] the specific accusations made against me”.

‘Mollifying politicians’

While the outcomes of the investigation were announced on 5 March, RPN has previously revealed that its findings had been finalised in mid-December.

Patel said that after the investigation concluded “I was offered no apology”, but that she had met with Corner on three occasions since and had been informed that the terms of reference of the advisory group would be changed, alongside proposed new social media guidance for all external advisers.

Following the investigation’s finding that no members of the advisory group had breached its terms of reference, Research England’s governing council decided that the group should continue working.

Patel said the changes to the terms of reference “reveal a primary concern with mollifying politicians and their whims, over what is best for the research community and any rigorous defence of academic freedom and freedom of speech”.

‘Not serious about EDI’

The most “egregious” of these changes is that the group’s advice would be made public, Patel said.

“This change would expose the group to greater political and public scrutiny in a ‘culture war’ climate that I believe it would not only put external advisers in harm’s way but make it impossible to effectively and meaningfully advise Research England to lead transformative change in the sector, given your proclivity to appeasement,” Patel said.

She added that “the absence of any real reflection leads me to believe that Research England is not serious about equality, diversity or inclusion”.

Accusations of silencing dissent

In her letter, Patel also accused the government of “disgraceful efforts” to silence dissent, particularly in relation to criticism of Israel’s policy.

“Over the past few months, we have seen the playbook of lobbing unfounded allegations and stoking an investigation into anybody critical of the Israeli state’s policies as a sufficient action to malign and silence them, irrespective of any evidence underpinning the charge or the outcome of any investigation,” she said.

Corner’s defence

Corner said: “I understand and respect Dr Patel’s decision, and I would personally like to thank her for all her input and service as an advisor to Research England.

“In responding to the many complex and sensitive issues raised by the secretary of state in her letter, we remained steadfastly focused on outcomes. We took the view that it was essential to follow good governance, supporting robust, principled, evidence-based decisions. This was, and remains, critical given the fundamental importance of freedom of speech within the law, and equality diversity and inclusion to a thriving research and innovation system.

“We recognise and understand that some in the research and innovation community would have taken a different approach to the one we followed. The independent investigation we commissioned was a core part of this process and its outcomes have provided a robust foundation from which we can move forward.

“I can only reiterate that the actions taken were aimed at supporting all of those who serve on our advisory groups.

“Research England is committed to taking forward equality, diversity and inclusion in all our work programmes and in supporting the sector to do more on this important agenda.

“We will use the feedback from all those concerned to learn what we could do better. I hope that we can work to rebuild trust with those in our communities who have expressed their concerns.”