The UK government has pressured an academic funding body to dissolve an advisory committee. This constitutes an attack on academic freedom.
On the 28th October, Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, wrote a letter to Dame Ottoline Leyser, head of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the principal academic funding body in the UK. Donelan expressed her “disgust and outrage” at a number of appointments to a UKRI advisory group on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). She stated that it was her “strong preference” that the entire group be immediately closed. On the 31st October, in response to Donelan’s letter, the group was suspended.
What are Donelan’s precise accusations? First, that Professor Kate Sang, a member of the EDI group, has expressed “sympathy or support” for Hamas. Donelan cites in evidence the fact that Sang re-tweeted, with the caption “This is disturbing”, a Guardian article describing Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s call for police to crackdown on expression of support for Hamas. Sang’s tweet does indeed criticise Braverman’s policy. However, criticism of a government policy does not constitute support for those the policy is supposed to target. The claim that Sang has expressed support for Hamas is utterly false. As Donelan knows, expressing support for Hamas can be a criminal offense. Why, then, does she not raise the possibility that Sang has committed a criminal offense? This would be a far more serious stain on UKRI. Donelan is deliberately conflating criticism of the government, including its attempts to stifle criticism of Israel, with support for Hamas.
Secondly, Donelan claims that members of the EDI group have “contravened” the seven “Nolan Principles of Public Life”. As well as Sang’s post, she cites a post shared by Professor Kamna Patel, another member of the group, referring to Israel’s “apartheid and genocide”. Donelan’s accusation is baseless. It is unclear which of the seven principles she thinks Sang and Kamna have violated. It cannot be “Integrity”, as Sang and Kamna have not allowed their work to be unduly influenced by external bodies. It cannot be “Objectivity”, as this governs how individuals holding public office make decisions. Sang and Kamna took office only two days before Donelan wrote her letter, and have not yet made any decisions. Violations of other principles are even more implausible.
Thirdly, Donelan claims that the posts of Sang and Patel violate the EDI group’s duty to be perceived as politically impartial. This claim is highly dubious. Sang and Patel cannot reasonably be perceived to have posted qua members of the EDI group, since they weren’t members of the group when the posts were made. Donelan can only claim that Sang and Patel have previously expressed political views on a controversial subject. As a bar for perceived impartiality in public office this is absurdly high, and one which almost no possible appointee could meet.
There may be other good reasons to oppose the appointment of Professor Patel to the EDI group. Patel has previously attacked academic freedom and supported the cancellation of a Woman’s Place UK conference. Patel’s publicly stated views are in direct opposition to the duty of universities to uphold academic freedom under the Equality Act 2010. She is therefore poorly suited to chair an EDI group. Donelan does not raise these concerns. Instead, two of Donelan’s criticisms are baseless, and the third is highly dubious. Moreover, irrespective of the merit of these claims, Donelan’s call for the dissolution of the EDI group constitutes pressure on UKRI to restructure itself in line with the government’s wishes. Academic freedom requires that research funding is not influenced by or subject to pressure from political actors. Donelan’s statement in her letter to Leyser of a “strong preference” regarding how UKRI runs itself is an attack on academic freedom.