Dr. Kamna Patel, chair of Research England’s EDI steering group, is no fan of academic freedom

An academic who has previously attempted to cancel a conference will chair Research England’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion steering group. 

Dr Kamna Patel is a development academic and associate professor at University College London. In October 2023 Patel was appointed to chair Research England’s new EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) expert advisory group. Research England is one of the principal funders of academic research in the UK and part of the overall funding body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). 

On hearing of the appointment, Michele Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, published a letter to UKRI in which she claimed that Patel had violated the Nolan principles of public life. As a result, the group was suspended. CAF has previously written a report showing that Donelan’s claim was false and her interference a threat to academic freedom. A UKRI investigation has now found that Patel did not violate the Nolan principles. 

Nonetheless, Patel is grossly unsuited to hold an influential role in a funding body. 

In February 2020, UCL Women’s Liberation, led by Dr Holly Smith, Prof Judith Suissa and Prof Alice Sullivan, organised a conference at UCL with the support of four third-sector women’s groups including Woman’s Place UK (WPUK). WPUK is an organisation which campaigns for sex-based rights for women and is “gender critical”: it believes that sex is a “material reality” and that there are cases where it is legitimate to discriminate on the basis of sex rather than gender. For instance, WPUK argues for the preservation of single sex spaces in prisons and rape crisis centres. The conference was titled “Women’s liberation 2020” and included academics, politicians, lawyers, and journalists working in fields such as women’s rights, domestic abuse, and sex trafficking. 

Patel was one of 10 UCL academics who published a letter to the Provost of UCL demanding that the conference be cancelled. The letter argues that: 

WPUK’s views on gender identity are transphobic and discriminatory. They go against everything that UCL has been trying to do in promoting equality, diversity and inclusion, and are in direct contradiction to Stonewall’s UK Workplace Equality Index. 

That is: 

  • The gender-critical views of WPUK are transphobic 
  • Because WPUK has transphobic views, it should not be allowed to hold a conference at UCL 

Both claims are false. WPUK’s gender-critical views are not transphobic, at least not if “transphobic” has its ordinary meaning of “characterized by fear of or hatred of transgender people”. In any case, free speech and academic freedom require that gender-critical views should not censored. Thus, the authors of this letter straightforwardly oppose freedom of speech. 

Moreover, the letter argues that the conference should be cancelled not on the basis of what might be said in it but simply because of the views of WPUK. Its signatories display a complete lack of interest in the content of the conference which they demand be cancelled. None of them knew who was speaking at the conference, since, as they admit in the letter, this had been kept private. Alice Sullivan reports that none of them made efforts to contact the conference organisers to discuss its content, and indeed they refused offers from the organisers to discuss its content. Naturally, one might expect the views an organisation holds to be expressed at a conference it hosts. But the argument of the letter is that, simply given the views of WPUK, the conference should be cancelled, irrespective of what might views might be expressed in it. Censorship of legitimate views is bad enough. Censorship of individuals and organisations is far worse. 

Patel is one of the original ten signatories of the letter. She agreed, and presumably still agrees, with its underlying assumptions: that views which are politically or morally unsavoury to some can be censored, and that organisations which hold these views can be denied access to university premisses. 

The purpose of the EDI expert advisory group is to “provide strategic advice on… delivering research that is more inclusive and representative of the population”. As chair of this group, Patel will be able to exert considerable influence over what research receives UK government funding – and what research doesn’t. Her appointment is a threat to academic freedom.