[ASC-list] Governments Shouldn’t Be Able To Censor Research Results They Don’t Like

Glenn Conroy glenn1231946 at gmail.com
Tue Jul 21 06:31:23 UTC 2015

>From University of Newcastle this week

 Governments Shouldn’t Be Able To Censor Research Results They Don’t Like

3:30 PM*

 Share *66*
 Discuss *4*


Government departments and agencies routinely commission research to help
them understand and respond to health, social and other problems. We expect
such research to be impartial and unbiased. But governments impose legal
conditions on such research that can subvert science and the public

Gagging clauses in contracts permit purchasers of research to modify,
substantially delay, or prohibit the reporting of findings.

A 2006 survey of health scientists in Australia
<http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18081576> shows such clauses have been
invoked by our federal and state governments to sanitise the reporting of
“failings in health services … the health status of a vulnerable group … or
… harm in the environment …”. And in a paper published today in the Medical
Journal of Australia
(paywalled), I describe my experience of a contract negotiation with a
government department where gagging clauses became an issue.

A rude shock

My colleagues and I were pretty happy when we were notified that our
application for funding to study a new treatment for risky drinking had
been successful. But then we received a draft contract with clauses that
could potentially be used to sanitise the study findings, prohibit
publication, or even terminate the project without notice or explanation
via a “Termination for Convenience” clause.

That experience led us to initiate a formal study of the kinds of contracts
governments use to purchase public good research in Australia. Draft
contracts obtained through the Commonwealth’s AusTender website and its
state equivalents <https://www.tenders.gov.au/> show these documents often
contain gagging clauses. And informal enquiries with universities suggest
that Termination for Convenience clauses are common and accepted within the
sector as a “cost of doing business” with government.

It’s important to note that these concerns don’t pertain to specialist
funders of science such as theAustralian Research Council
<http://www.arc.gov.au/> and the National Health and Medical Research
Council <https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/>. What I am talking about here are
government agencies that commission research to guide their activities and
policy advice to government.

And while my area of expertise is health science, a brief examination of
tenders for research in other domains suggests that gagging clauses are not
unique to health.

Universities as the conscience of society

Private companies that provide research services to governments are
motivated by profit, rather than public good, and may have no problem with
accepting gagging clauses as long as they’re paid. But universities have
ethical and legal obligations to serve the public interest.

A noteworthy aspect of my contract negotiation was that the university
involved would probably have signed the restrictive contract offered.
The experience
of other health scientists <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18081576>
and the government department’s comment in my case that the contract was
standard (essentially asking what were we complaining about) suggest such
arrangements are the norm.

But the idea that academics should be frank and fearless in their reporting
and commentary is codified in the acts of parliament used to establish our
universities, as well as in the Commonwealth’s Tertiary Education Quality
and Standards Agency Act 2011

The higher education provider protects academic integrity in higher
education through effective policies and measures to: … ensure the
integrity of research and research activity; [and] ensure that academic
staff are free to make public comment on issues that lie within their area
of expertise…

Universities have an obligation to the public and should be careful when
faced with gagging clauses.
CC BY <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/>

 Some reasons why

So how has this culture of suppression come about? I hypothesise four
processes underpinning this phenomenon:

1) Governments are increasingly image-conscious and active in managing the
information environment. Research seems to have become more a means of
providing support for a policy position than for generating knowledge to
guide policy.

2) Lawyers with experience in the corporate environment are more often
being employed in government, drafting contracts that are adversarial in
character where they used to be cooperative. A similar proclivity to employ
lawyers from the corporate world in university research offices may have
contributed to loss of institutional memory about universities’ conscience
of society role.

3) The squeeze on research funding from dedicated sources, such as the ARC
and the NHMRC, has encouraged universities to compete more for government

4) Casualisation of the research workforce means people undertaking
research are less able to be choosy about the kinds of projects they

Embracing partnership

In his seminal paper The Experimenting Society
Donald Campbell lamented the tendency of mid-20th-century American
governments to commit to certain policy positions in the absence of
evidence, rather than trying to generate the knowledge necessary to
underpin better policy.

Similarly, Australian governments undertake policy experiments of one sort
or another, perhaps every week, yet little is learned from them. These need
to be recognised as opportunities to extend knowledge of how to generate
wealth and well-being, and address society’s problems.

But that will require a change in the orientation of governments to
recognising the need for evidence-based policy and, where evidence is
inadequate, to contribute to generating relevant evidence through ethical
funding of public good research. Effective partnership with scientists in
the planning of evaluation is needed to accomplish that.

In turn, universities must revisit their founding principles, which include
obligations to undertake research that benefits the public they are funded
to serve, and to protect and encourage the role of public advocacy.

To be effective, there needs to be a sector-wide effort to modify the way
governments purchase research. Situations in which secrecy about findings
would be warranted would surely be rare and require strong justification.

Kypros Kypri <http://theconversation.com/profiles/kypros-kypri-118212> is
Professor, Public Health, Epidemiology & Prevention of Alcohol-related
Injury and Disease at University of Newcastle
article was originally published on The Conversation
Read the original article

Glenn Conroy
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <https://www.lists.sublimeip.com/pipermail/asc-list/attachments/20150721/5b8e625f/attachment.htm>

More information about the ASC-list mailing list