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Donelan’s woke-bashing puts the REF in the crosshairs


Minister’s speech showed the government is pulling research into its culture war, says John Whitfield

When science got its own cabinet minister in February, many applauded it as a sign of the UK government’s priorities and the research sector’s increasing political influence. But a seat at the cabinet table also brings exposure to a different kind of politics, and politician. 

Junior ministers who become devoted to their portfolios tend to stay junior. To get promoted it helps not to go native. Cabinet ministers’ higher profile also comes with a greater share of the work towards the government’s general positioning and messaging.

What that means for science was shown at the Conservative Party conference on 3 October. Michelle Donelan, secretary of state at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, used her slot on the main stage to attack the “slow creep of wokeism” in science with regard to research into questions around biological sex and gender identity. 

As a cabinet minister, one of Donelan’s jobs was to reinforce the conference’s overarching theme: that the Conservatives are the nation’s best defence against internal and external menaces ranging from pedestrians to Vladimir Putin. This, rather than its record—which, on science at least, is perfectly defensible—or its plans, seems to be the ground the party wants to fight the next election on.

Energising the Tory base

The point of Donelan’s claims wasn’t necessarily to be true: it was populist virtue signalling intended to lay down dividing lines and rile up a section of the Tory base, along with other ministers’ untruths about 15-minute cities and meat taxes. 

The American conservative writer Salena Zito observed in 2016 that the press made the mistake of taking Donald Trump literally but not seriously, while for his supporters it’s vice versa. Anyone trying to make sense of the current Conservative Party should have the distinction in mind.

Whether Donelan believes what she says or not, her words will have consequences beyond Manchester Central. Most immediately, some people in science are likely to take them as an affirmation of their prejudiced attitudes and abusive behaviour. Donelan has also given Conservatives in parliament and the media, whether mainstream or social, a licence to attack research projects and researchers they don’t like the look of. 

Discrimination still does more damage to science than postmodernism, but the previous science minister Amanda Solloway’s campaign against bullying in academia feels like a lot more than two years ago. 

Little room for manoeuvre

In policy terms, the government has little room for manoeuvre. A review of how research and official statistics handle questions of sex and gender, announced at the conference and to be carried out by Alice Sullivan, a sociologist at University College London, is not due until April 2024. That leaves little time before the next election, after which, the Tories look unlikely to be in power. 

But that doesn’t make Donelan’s declaration that she will “not sit idly by and watch an intolerant few stifle the light of science” entirely content-free. The speech’s greatest significance was to show that right-wing attention is moving from what happens in university lecture halls to what happens in labs and libraries. 

As universities minister, Donelan suggested that diversity schemes were often poor value for money and a threat to free speech. After the government’s free speech bill, and alongside its “crackdown on rip-off degrees”, bringing the culture war to the regulatory regime around research is a logical next move, not a bolt from the blue.  

Research England put itself in the crosshairs with its plans for the 2028 Research Excellence Framework. These gave a quarter of the mark to evaluation of research culture and reduced the weighting for research outputs below 50 per cent, a move that seems to have taken on symbolic as well as practical significance.  

When these changes were announced, Iain Mansfield, a former adviser to the education department now working at the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, called them “devastating for UK research excellence”. This month, Sullivan questioned the mandate for the increased weighting on culture and criticised universities’ handling of diversity, equity and inclusion, calling for an increased focus on academic freedom as an element of culture. 

According to the official documents, the weighting of culture is not up for discussion, while consultation on what metrics and data to use in evaluating culture is set to conclude before Sullivan reports. But the path to REF 2028 looks a lot bumpier than it did a few months ago.  

John Whitfield is the opinion editor at Research Professional News

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight