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Don’t let political drama distract from equality in research

Image: Brookings Institution [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Minister’s attack has backfired, but the attitudes that drove it remain widespread, says Parveen Yaqoob

After an autumn of criticism, recriminations and broadsides fired between the worlds of politics and research, last week UK Research and Innovation announced the conclusion of an independent investigation into Research England’s Expert Advisory Group on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.

The investigation followed a demand from Michelle Donelan (pictured above), secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, that the group be disbanded, with the minister accusing some of its members of “extremist views” relating to the Israel-Hamas war.

The full findings have not been published—just a short statement that there was no evidence of a breach of the group’s terms of reference, no evidence its members had supported a proscribed terrorist organisation, and no evidence of contravention of the Nolan principles of public life. Donelan has paid damages to one of the researchers she singled out.

Some in the academic community saw UKRI’s handling of the matter, particularly for suspending the group during the investigation, as a failure in its duty of care, and a violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech. More than 3,000 signed an open letter urging the funder to stand up to Donelan. Some resigned from voluntary positions with UKRI.

Human cost

I have a lot of sympathy for members of the advisory group. UKRI’s expression of regret for “difficulties experienced” will be little consolation for months of distress. The legal firm representing the two advisory panel members under scrutiny criticised a lengthy investigation that found no case to answer. Investigations and suspensions may be unavoidable, but the longer they run, the greater the human cost, whatever the outcome.

Could UKRI have done better? On one side, it faced a minister determined to flex her authority and score political points, with the effect of undermining significant progress made on equality in research. On the other, it faced an academic community demanding it defend those under attack.

Rebuffing the minister for even raising the issue, as some advocated, would have generated more heat and less light. UKRI chief executive Ottoline Leyser could not ignore Donelan, but she did disregard the minister’s instruction to disband the group.

And while the investigation may have been slow, its clear conclusion allows UKRI to show definitively that there was no case to answer. Leyser has also stated that UKRI will press on with its EDI action plan, and the funder has “warmly” invited the original group to reconvene.

It is not clear whether all the original members will want to. Dibyesh Anand, a political scientist at the University of Westminster, was among the first to confirm that he would return to his advisory role and not hand a victory to those attempting to derail the EDI agenda.

Chilling effect

More will now think twice before applying for these public roles. People working on EDI, many of whom are from underrepresented groups, often describe feeling overly scrutinised as they navigate dismissive attitudes and box-ticking approaches.

Responding to the UKRI announcement, Donelan continued to choose her words poorly. She almost-but-not-quite expressed regret for her actions, and highlighted that it is “important that good governance is observed for all appointments to boards, especially those whose remit is equality, diversity and inclusion”.

In December 2023, while the UKRI investigation was underway, the government published its response to the Independent Review of Research Bureaucracy. The response instructed funders not to “gold-plate their compliance…at the unjustified expense of the taxpayer” and only do the minimum necessary to comply with the Equality Act 2010 and Public Sector Equality Duty.

How ironic that the whole debacle could have been avoided if Donelan had acknowledged and rectified her mistake immediately. Instead, we have had an unnecessary investigation and a legal case resulting in £15,000 in damages and costs, paid, at time of writing, by the taxpayer.

Traps to avoid

So far, so unedifying. The outrage at a cabinet minister’s interference in research, and concern about what it says about the erosion of independence of funding bodies, is understandable.

But those in research should be wary of falling into the traps set by manufactured political rows. Donelan has proven herself to be a political agitator, either extremely poorly advised or deaf to her officials, but her intervention is not an unusual tactic.

For now, it’s time to show support and allyship for those bruised by this encounter—not least those who will be returning to actually do this important work, under even greater scrutiny.

Parveen Yaqoob is deputy vice-chancellor and pro-vice-chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Reading, and chair of the Advance HE equity, diversity and inclusion committee

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight