Government buries its own research – and that’s bad for democracy

No one will find the report now. Shutterstock

The UK government spends billions on research aiming to guide and inform its policies. Yet it turns out the government doesn’t know exactly what it has commissioned or published. Worse, there is evidence that government-funded research is sometimes deliberately buried or delayed. Transparent and open government, this is not.

Government funds research to help it understand what evidence there is about particular policy problems (such as the effect of immigration on employment) or solutions (such as alcohol pricing). But a new report from campaign group Sense about Science found that only four of the 24 government departments keep central records of what research they commission and publish.

The investigation, led by former Court of Appeal judge Sir Stephen Sedley, also identified several cases where research may have been delayed to avoid political embarrassment, or to prevent informed public debate. For example, research on depression and the recession was delayed due to a Number 10 speech on the state of the economy. A report into the horsemeat scandal was delayed as it suggested local authority cuts had directly reduced food safety – which was potentially very embarrassing for the government.

Government research can be highly valuable but is costly and time consuming. So you’d hope taxpayer money was being spent on the most important research priorities. But this report – to which I contributed – suggests that there is no overall strategy. Instead, government may be commissioning research reactively, for example in response to a minister’s latest ideas or a media furore.

If this is the case, it would indeed lead to a situation as described by Sense About Science: a system full of inefficiencies with no overall strategy, quality control, or monitoring. Researchers are placed under embargo, and not allowed to publish without political endorsement, or until the policy itself is announced.

However, there are alternative explanations. Maybe research is not always commissioned to inform government about a policy problem, or public policy solutions. Research may be commissioned to reassure MPs that the government is looking into an issue – in other words, as a way of putting problems on the back burner.

A report may be commissioned in good faith, but changes in the political environment suddenly make the report irrelevant or unpopular. It may be that the government genuinely wants information, but the research findings are so politically explosive that the government decides it is less risky to bring new information into the debate, which may challenge the existing policy.

I’ll just leave this here. Shutterstock

For example, when the government wanted to introduce a cap on non-EU immigrants, Theresa May, the home secretary, claimed in December 2012 that 23 British workers would become unemployed for every 100 migrants that entered the country. This statistic was immediately criticised for being cherry-picked from a report that found no overall significant effects on employment as a result of immigration.

Rather than admit to the complexity of the data, the Home Office delayed publication of its own analyses – which agreed there were no significant effects – for a further 15 months. Misuse of statistics by ministers is hardly new, but ignoring their own research in order to avoid difficult conversations is highly undemocratic.

Joined-up government?

Regardless of the reasons for the current situation, it’s clear we need to improve the way government organises and commissions its research. Without access to high-quality and reliable information to help them plan and implement effective policies, government officials can’t be confident that they are making the best decisions. Poor record keeping leads to a lack of transparency and poor access to this research, as well as making it more likely government will commission the same research twice.

Citizens also have a right to know what is being done with their taxes. If there is no way of telling what research is being done to inform policy, citizens are less able to judge how well informed policies are. Obscuring this allows politicians to paint their own pictures, even distorting the facts to suit their own agendas. It is also important for the public to be able to judge whether government research is well conducted, and if it is addressing issues of importance.

What would a good system look like?

In the report, Sedley called for a publicly searchable central database of all funded research. This would be a good start, but it would not really address the underlying problems of poor commissioning and research-use practices.

Imagine instead a system where the public, researchers and any other involved groups had a serious and transparent say in what research was needed, and what should be commissioned. This would involve reviewing the strengths and gaps in the evidence base to reduce duplication and ensure only needed research was commissioned.

New research could be registered in advance, which would allow us to monitor progress. Government could hold consultations about the findings of the research once published, opening the door for informed debate about the quality and relevance of the work.

Few would advocate for a technocratic system in which policies are decided purely on the basis of available research evidence and without considering the political or ethical implications. For one thing, the evidence available is often weak and fragmented, and can be just as affected by subjective values as any other way of determining policy. Politicians must also take into account the views of their constituents, and the political machinery itself.

There are often very good reasons for policymakers to make the decisions they do –- even occasionally when they go against the evidence. But rather than burying research that is unwanted or appears to contradict policy, government should come out of the shadows and explain their reasoning. As Sedley’s report says, good political leaders should always be able to explain their “grounds of doubt or disagreement”. It takes bravery to have those honest conversations, but it’s a bravery citizens are entitled to -– and pay for.

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