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Sock Puppets, Muzzles and the Impact Agenda

Sock Puppets, Muzzles and the Impact Agenda

This post by John Holmwood first appeared on the Making Science Public blog.

A new threat to the contribution of university research to public debate has been identified. This derives from Cabinet Office rules that would prevent bodies in receipt of grants from Government from lobbying. It has been suggested that this could muzzle academic research.

Ironically, the rules derive from lobbying by the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA)– a right-wing think tank that does not declare the source of its funding – and were explicitly directed at charities and NGOs like Save the Children, Action on Smoking and Health and Alcohol Concern.  In effect, the IEA argued, it was tantamount to Government funding lobbying by ‘sock puppets’ for special interests against its own decisions. The rules have been watered down from what IEA initially proposed. They are now explicitly directed only at the funds derived from Government; bodies may use other funds for lobbying.

It is unlikely that the Government intended that the rules would affect research undertaken by universities. Not least because this would go against another plank of Government policy, that of the Impact agenda. Both QR funding from the REF and grant funding via the Research Councils require the demonstration of the benefit of research for users and measures to ensure that it is taken up by them. Indeed, the ESRC impact toolkit recommends the early involvement of users in the design of research and the co-production of research with them. The new rules seem to contradict this requirement, at least if the user of the research is seeking to modify government policy indirectly through other agencies. Moreover, researchers are not generally in receipt of other funds, and their ‘impact costs’ are typically included within grant proposals.

Of course, since the rules are to be applied via a clause inserted into grants, it is likely that research grants will not have the relevant clause inserted (although, of course, the possibility remains that a clause could be inserted into specific grants). However, this should not be the end of the matter. There is a deeper problem with the impact agenda itself and wider government policies toward charities and NGOs that is itself shaping academic research in ways damaging for democracy. Under the impact agenda, academics allow their research to be shaped by government, but emphatically deny they are being muzzled.

The Impact Agenda

Let’s begin from the beginning. The purpose of the impact agenda is to shorten the time from idea to practical use. Where an earlier tenet of research policy, which even the IEA upheld, was that there should be no public funding of research for private beneficiaries, that has been inverted such that there should be no public funding unless there is a direct, identifiable user. The latter can include a commercial user and this is also encouraged by the way that all property rights in research funded by RCUK accrue to researchers and their institutions. Open access policies are also directed at making research easily available to small and medium enterprises, as the Finch Report proposed.

Of course, the impact agenda is careful to set out that the beneficiaries of research can be various, notwithstanding that commercial beneficiaries find particular favour. Government policies have for some time promoted market-based solutions. The competitive market aggregating private decisions is held to embody a generalized public interest and, in consequence, it is to be preferred to collective decisions made through politics. At the same time, Government is seen as the arbiter in politics of the public interest. Commercial lobbying for market deregulation and the like is unproblematic, but charities and NGOs are potentially set against both market and Government. As Philip Snowdon writes in the IEA pamphlet, “State-funded charities and NGOs usually campaign for causes which do not enjoy widespread support amongst the general public (e.g. foreign aid, temperance, identity politics). They typically lobby for bigger government, higher taxes, greater regulation and the creation of new agencies to oversee and enforce new laws.”

However, the Government has not simply sought to restrict the speech of charities and NGOs, it modifies their behaviour by other means. The idea of co-production of research is mirrored in the co-production of services. For some time, charities and NGOs have been encouraged to deliver services together with Government and local authorities. It is, of course, their dependence on government funding to do so that renders them vulnerable to the IEA critique. However, there has been a parallel process of the privatization of services which means that charities are also encouraged to engage with for-profit providers. In some cases – for example as in charitable academy schools and their for-profit provider of educational services that has replaced the local authority – the purpose of the charity is to facilitate profit-making in an area that was previously not-for-profit.

From the perspective of the IEA, the problem is that there are publicly funded charities and NGOs that remain committed to a social justice agenda, but from the perspective of the sector, there is a problem of the erosion of the very charity principle and advocacy itself. This is explicitly stated in a report for the National Coalition of Independent Action: “The force of entering the welfare market, increasingly as bid candy, has had disastrous consequences for voluntary services and their ability to respond to community needs.  The capitulation by many in the voluntary sector, including its national and local leadership bodies, to these government agendas has done much damage to the ability of voluntary organisations to work with and represent the interests of individuals and communities under pressure. Privatisation and co-option into the market is driving down the conditions of staff working in voluntary services, diminishing their role in advocacy and jeopardising the safety of people using such services.”

The Market Agenda

Put simply, the problem for a broad definition of the impact agenda and a wide range of potential users and beneficiaries is that the latter are being reduced and increasingly constrained toward a market orientation. The lobbying activities of charities and NGOs are being reduced, but the number of charities and NGOs addressing social justice issues is also being reduced. Of course, academics are able to seek to influence Governments directly, to provide policy-based evidence, and this is increasingly what is done. Bob Ward cites Sir Paul Nurse to the effect that, “it is crucial to get the mechanisms right that result in a good relationship between politicians across government and expert researchers, to ensure that the best decisions are made.” There is nothing in what is proposed that makes that type of insider arrangement problematic, since it is what enables the Government to control the agenda.

However, the impact agenda has eroded academic freedom in other ways, too. Commentators were grateful at the Chancellor’s apparent commitment to the Haldane principle and the principle of dual funding. Both forms of funding face the same constraints of a tightening impact agenda. More serious is that government is increasingly involved in dictating the direction of research itself. This is most evident at the ESRC in its funding of ‘What Works? Centres’, but also in allocating tranches of funding to other projects, including the proposed new ‘Grand Challenges’. The mantra of independence is chanted: only research judged to be excellent through peer review is funded, but two new issues are elided. The first is that the direction of research is increasingly centrally defined, with a decline in responsive mode research. The second is that the impact agenda places ‘users’ as peer reviewers. This includes representatives of BIS, the Treasury, or other Government departments, can now be involved in the evaluation of which research applications should be accepted.

Finally, although the academic community rises up against specific threats, it has generally acceded to the wider environment that has eroded academic freedom and non-utilitarian claims about the public value of research. For example, the Campaign for the Social Sciences lobbied MPs at the time of the last general election, but the value of social science it promoted was its benefit to policymakers and commercial organisations seeking to understand different aspects of the public’s resistance to their endeavours. There was no mention at all of widening inequality as an issue, despite major OECD reports setting this out as a pressing global challenge, and no mention of social science research facilitating public debate.

Notwithstanding that it was an election, there was no mention of social science’s contribution to democracy. But there is a similar reticence on the part of Research Councils. For example, the ESRC declared that, “as a non-departmental public body the ESRC is bound by purdah during a pre-election period …  During this time we are unable to engage in any activities that might in any way influence the outcome of the election and must avoid competition with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public.”  This may be understandable on the part of the ESRC as a public body, but it was extended to its ‘investments’ (ie its grant-holders). The latter were advised, “Essentially, what we want you to do is to ask the question ‘why now, can this wait?’ If something is not time-critical then it is best left until after the election and the outcome is known.”

The risk to research undertaken in the public interest comes not from pieces of legislation against which the academic community lobbies specifically, but from the general direction of public policy which has incorporated universities and their research into a narrowly-defined knowledge economy that serves private interests.



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