Amendment 23

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 7:03 pm on 7 December 2022.

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Lord Sikka:

Moved by Lord Sikka

23: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—“Research grant funding and academic integrityAfter section A7 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (inserted by section 4) insert—“A8 Research grant funding and academic integrity(1) The provision of grant funding for research shall not be used as a means of interfering with the freedom for academics—(a) to publish and disseminate their research; or(b) to decide on the final form and academic integrity of such research.(2) Unless the conditions in subsection (3) apply, no contractual or other provision in a funding agreement that gives editing or publishing control to the funder shall be enforceable by law.(3) The conditions referred to in subsection (2) are— (a) that a court finds the full publication of the research would threaten national security, public safety, or health; or(b) the contracting parties to a research funding arrangement agree confidentiality of results in advance.””Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment reduces the ability of public, private or philanthropic funders of academic research to infringe upon academic integrity and the freedom to publish results. Contractual attempts at interference with academic expression will be unenforceable, unless confidentiality of research was agreed in advance or where a court finds a national security, public safety or health justification for preventing publication.

Photo of Lord Sikka Lord Sikka Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for their support for this amendment. I raised the subject of academic integrity and freedom to disseminate research findings at Second Reading and in Committee. Several important issues were raised, and this amendment has been extensively rewritten in light of that. I believe that it now complies with Article 10 of the ECHR.

The revised amendment prevents the gagging of academics by research funders who do not like the findings. However, the right to publish research is also constrained by my amendment’s proposed new subsection (3), which basically states that, if the research findings would

“threaten national security, public safety, or health”,

they need not be published. They also would not if

“the contracting parties to a research funding arrangement agree confidentiality of results in advance.”

Major issues were raised during the last debate, and I will address them.

In Committee, I provided examples of how the Government themselves suppressed Covid-related research findings, for which we are yet to receive a full explanation. The research was funded by public money and did not threaten national security or public safety, but it was still suppressed. The publication of that research could have provided insights into the cost of Covid tests and of controlling the pandemic, and possibly have helped to frame more effective public policies.

I also cited examples of the tobacco and food industries censoring or preventing the dissemination of research. The unhindered publication of academic research would have created greater awareness of the dangers of smoking and the ill effects of processed food, and, again, this may well have enabled the development of more informed public policies.

Research showing that generic drugs are just as effective as branded drugs would have reduced the cost of medical treatments, as well as the cost to the NHS. In Committee, it was suggested that my amendment was somehow not appropriate for the Bill, and that transparency was a key issue. I will tackle that head on because I am happy to respond to these points. The amendment is about academic freedoms, and the clue is in the title of the Bill, which includes the words “Freedom of Speech”. Advancing and protecting the academic freedom to publish uncensored research is directly relevant to it; there is no other Bill where these kinds of issues can go at the moment. The point about transparency is important, but the unhindered publication and dissemination of research is the best form of transparency.

Over the years, I have been on many academic journal editorial boards, so I am well aware of the politics of publishing and commissioning research and so on. All reputable peer-reviewed journals require authors to disclose sources of research funding and to make the relevant data, wherever possible, available to other scholars. However, that point can be reached only when a scholar submits a paper for publication. If research funders supress the findings, a submission to a journal does not take place, and the data cannot be provided easily to other scholars—you need not necessarily disclose who the funders are, because that point is not reached. If research findings are diluted by the funder, the researcher has the option whether to accept the diluted paper and proceed to publication or not. If the researcher chooses not to proceed to publication, there will be no transparency about funding at all. If the researcher succumbs to pressure from the funder and accepts the dilution of research outcomes, he or she is unlikely to be permitted to say that the funder rewrote or took out large chunks of the paper. So there is no transparency about the pressures which prevent the publication of the paper, which is what I am really concerned about.

Of course, there are numerous research registers which list the grants obtained by scholars, but a mere listing of the source does not amount to transparency because it does not tell us anything about the gagging of those researchers or prevention of their publication. Just naming the funders does not tell us about the contents of the research, research methods, research methodology, analysis, discussion or possible public implications.

Full transparency, which is what I am concerned with, covers all those things, and that can be provided only by publication of the research, not permitting funders to say that you cannot publish it because, somehow, they now feel that it would damage their reputation or reduce the revenues arising from the sale of tobacco-related products or processed food. Gagging comes in many guises; it is not simply somebody saying that they will not let you publish—they behave in all kinds of interesting or strange ways.

I shall give a personal example. For a long time, I have taken an interest in auditor regulation. Under the Companies Acts, a resigning auditor is required to issue a statement addressed to shareholders and creditors stating whether there are circumstances in connection with that resignation that shareholders and creditors need to be aware of, then to list them, or to say that there are no circumstances and leave it at that. What do the auditors actually do? I conducted the only piece of research on that over the past 100 years, and I looked into it. I learned that Companies House does not publish the data, but on inquiry it said that it could write a piece of software for me, interrogate its database and tell me which company auditors had resigned. This was in relation to public limited companies. In those days you had to buy microfiches, so I would have had to buy the microfiches and track down whether there was a letter of resignation from the auditor.

I got the data and approached the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and asked whether it would help to fund the cost of writing the software and buying microfiches. I got the grant, and I looked at all 800 auditor resignations relating to public limited companies. What did I find? Only 2.5% of the resigning auditors complied with the law. The other 97.5% were silent; they did not say anything. But roll forward a few months and I started looking—and what do I find? In many instances, the auditors got out quietly but there was a scandal, with major frauds and other kinds of corporate collapses, which suggested that the auditors had basically abdicated their duty. They did not want to say anything or get a bad name for being troublesome, which is not very helpful for getting new audits or consultancy work.

I submitted my report to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, which said that it would get back to me. That is what is required—you submit a report. Would it say that I could go ahead to publish or say that I could not? It said neither yes nor no, and meanwhile the research was getting stale, and I had to make a decision. Was it important enough for people to know what auditors were up to, or should I just be quiet? I decided that I would publish the research, and it was published as a research monograph. Needless to say, I never got a research grant from the ICAEW again. The public suffers.

That is just one example of how people are gagged. Not everybody wants to follow their conscience and just publish. What I am trying to do through this amendment is to empower academics so they can publish research that is vitally important. There is nothing in the Bill that prevents gagging of scholars through subtle or not so subtle forms of silencing. We all see the world by standing on the shoulders of intellectuals. The barriers to publication of research prevent us seeing things, and this amendment would lower those barriers. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 23 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. I said at Second Reading that there was a lacuna in this Bill, in that it did not deal with finance and money. Finance, of course, is what makes the world go round, and the scope for using money to limit freedom of expression and academic freedom is obvious. It hardly needs to be explained. So why would a Bill that addressed academic freedom not deal with this question of money and its potential abuse?

Quite independently of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, in Committee I tabled three amendments trying to cover such aspects as the use of donations, the use of research grants and a couple of other matters which I thought were worthy of debate. Independently, the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, tabled an amendment much along the lines of the one he has just spoken to. As we proceed to Report, I have dropped mine, but the noble Lord has refined the drafting of his amendment considerably, and it is now a very good amendment and one that I think deserves a response. Sadly, in Committee, I do not feel it had quite the response or the engagement from either Front Bench that this important topic deserves.

I said at the outset that there was a lacuna in the Bill in relation to finance. That is not entirely true, because if it is overseas money, the Bill is not silent. Clause 9, which deals with overseas funding, inserts a new section that relates to many of the things that concerned me in Committee. For instance, new subsections (5)(a), (b), (c) and (d) list:

“by way of endowment, gift or donation … by way of research grant … pursuant to a research contract … or pursuant to an educational or commercial partnership”.

These are all to be monitored now by the OfS, with a view to assessing the extent to which the funding presents a risk to the matters in new subsection (2), which are, in fact, freedom of speech and academic freedom. So the principle that money and the influence of money needs to be, and can workably be, monitored seems to me to be established in the Bill where it relates to overseas funding, but the lacuna remains in relation to those matters in respect of funding that might arise domestically.

I do not think the noble Lord intends to press his amendment to a vote—that is a matter for him, of course —but the Government should be able to say something more than has been said so far, because these are very important issues and I do not feel they have been properly addressed. I, for one, am grateful to the noble Lord for bringing them back to your Lordships’ House for your attention on Report.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 7:15, 7 December 2022

My Lords, it is with pleasure that I support the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, in his Amendment 23. Noble Lords will note that, as has been the case with quite a number of amendments to the Bill, there is certainly a broad political range of support for this one. I think that is a demonstration of the fact that what we are looking at here is an issue that is recognised right across the political spectrum as a matter of grave concern. As the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, just said—I agree with him—it really was not adequately addressed by either Front Bench in Committee. This is my first contribution on Report, so I should declare that I now have the support of my second excellent intern from King’s College London.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, set out in Committee, and tonight, a range of areas where this is likely to be an issue: defence, gambling, tobacco and medicine. I would add to that agrochemicals and plastics. Of course, we should not forget the issue of research into government policies, which is so obviously a crucial matter of public interest. The international case study—the most famous or infamous case—is that of Mincome, the Manitoba basic income experiment, which was launched in 1974 under a broadly progressive Canadian state Government and shut down in 1979 under a new conservative Administration. The data from that big, significant trial disappeared into the Winnipeg regional office of Canada’s national library and archives. It was the initiative of one researcher, decades later, to dig out 1,800 dusty boxes packed with tables, surveys and assessment forms, and to digitise the lot. This revealed the positive impact that basic income had had. It was a really significant trial, but that knowledge was denied to the people of Canada, who had funded it, and to the world for decades afterwards.

The House may be pleased to hear that I will not test your Lordships’ patience by telling my own academic tale of woe about research into abomasal bloat in goat kids many decades ago. Suffice it to say that I am well aware of the often pernicious impact of commercial interests on academic research.

As the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, just outlined, in some ways he has watered down the amendment presented in Committee. I would definitely prefer this amendment without proposed new subsection (3)(b). A great deal of the research we are covering is conducted in public institutions by academics; it may be funded by a private interest or the Government, but its main support comes from public funds. Any research for which that is the case should be fully open and available to all. None the less, adding this amendment to the Bill would be a significant improvement.

The Green position overall remains that the Bill is unnecessary and more gesture politics than serious law. But if we are going to have it, this amendment could be a useful protection for academics seeking to add to the sum of human knowledge—and very often contribute to the public good—when they are in danger of being muzzled by private, commercial or government interests. That, combined with the impact of the casualisation of academia, inadequate pay, job insecurity and government policies seeking to narrow the scope of academic research, particularly research critical of the status quo, presents far greater issues for academic freedom than the alleged issues covered by most of the rest of the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, for tabling this amendment. It is such an important issue and I am glad that he has brought it back.

We all want multiple funders for research—this is not an attempt to argue against the funding of research—but we need to be wary of a tendency towards advocacy research, from any direction. We sometimes assume that this concerns mainly big bad corporates; we need to look carefully at business interests, which have every interest in having their interests represented by the apparently impartial academic sector, but this can also be true of the big charities sector. It is often assumed that their backing of research will always be on the right side, but we should remember that they are also lobbying organisations.

That is why I am so glad that the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, mentions all sectors, including philanthropy. His main point is basing our decisions on transparency. As he rightly says, transparency should go way beyond just listing them, because in that instance you can end up with a situation where people think, “This big corporate has sponsored that, so therefore it must be corrupt research,” but also, “This big charity sponsored this, so it must be good research.” You want to know exactly what influence any funder has on the research. The amendment is particularly important since the phrase “the research shows” is often used as a precursor to “so we don’t need any debate”, because research is treated as a holy grail of truth. We need to make sure that research is reliable.

Finally, there is another threat to the impartiality of research: the ideological capture of research organisations, sometimes associated with the Government. I mentioned in Committee that UKRI, a non-political organisation to distribute government largesse which is the largest funder of research that we associate with the Government, boasts in its new equality, diversity and inclusion strategy that it has been inspired by political advocacy groups and grass-roots movements. It advocates that UKRI-supported research is “delivered in inclusive ways”, “uses levers” to make change, and so on. That calls into question impartiality in deciding the distribution of public research money.

Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, decides to do with this amendment, I hope that the Government and the Minister will take into account that this area cannot be neglected if the Bill is to be successful in protecting academic freedom.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Baroness that ideological capture takes place in as quite as many places as she has suggested over the course of today’s debate. Of course, “ideological capture” is itself an ideological term. I think I know enough about UKRI to know that ideological disagreement and disagreement about evidence and priorities will continue to plague it, as all such organisations are likely to be plagued. I am sympathetic to this amendment, although I suspect that what it seeks to achieve is best provided by codes of practice and guidance.

I have had some experience in my career of having difficulty with getting research that I have done published. The first and hardest battle I had was with the Board of Trade, which had commissioned from Chatham House a study of the principles of trade policy. The economists who wrote it for us actually talked to a number of trade policy people and therefore produced something that was not entirely in line with the conventional wisdom of the economics profession. The economists at the Board of Trade therefore wanted to prevent us publishing it. We fought hard and they eventually gave in.

A more recent example was when I was asked by a think tank to contribute to a group of essays on the experience of outsourcing in the public services. I wrote something which was quite critical of outsourcing. I should have looked at its website, annual report and list of funders before I accepted the job. When I discovered that the largest outsourcing firms were among its largest funders, I realised why it had some hesitation about publishing what I had written. Again, after a small number of editorial changes, it finally accepted it.

I compliment that think tank for making as transparent as it did who its funders were. One of the briefing papers we have had for the Bill has pointed out the paradox that Policy Exchange, the fons et origo of much of the Bill, demands that student unions and others should be much more transparent about their funding but is itself entirely opaque about its funding. When I read the policy papers which led to the Bill, I was struck by the number of footnotes to American sources—much more than to any other international comparison. I wondered how much funding from various right-wing foundations in the United States had come into Policy Exchange. I do not know—perhaps there was none—but it should be a great deal more transparent about its funding. During the passage of the National Security Bill, I intend to push for more transparency from lobbying charities of that sort, to increase our sense of open debate.

I support the principles of this amendment, but I am not sure that we need to incorporate it in the Bill. I am sure that the Minister, in the spirit in which he has taken the whole Bill, will wish to make sure that the arguments are taken into account and that the principle of open research and publication is accepted and pursued, and not blocked by either civil servants and Ministers in government, or those outside government who commissioned the research.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Labour

My Lords, the Faculty of Music at Oxford University does excellent research. Earlier on, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said:

“When the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Music decolonised its curriculum in response to student pressure, the university itself sought to forbid criticism of the new curriculum.”

I have checked with the head of humanities at Oxford University, Professor Dan Grimley. There were indeed some articles in the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail suggesting that that might have been the case, but I have it from the professor—from the horse’s mouth, as it were—that the music curriculum at Oxford has not been decolonised and there has been absolutely no attempt to stifle debate.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

Briefly, on the horse’s mouth, I did not get my information from the Telegraph; I got it from music academics at Oxford University.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 7:30, 7 December 2022

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sikka knows the Labour Front Bench’s position on his amendment, because I wrote to him about it. He knows that we are very sympathetic to the issues and, like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, believe that they need to be addressed. Certainly, over the years, all Governments have been focused on sufficient funding of research, through different mechanisms, such as the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council—all these bodies through which we have attempted to ensure that research is open and transparent.

One of the problems that my noble friend is seeking to address is the sort of research when somebody decides to ask a question, hoping they know what the answer will be, and those tend to be funders, whether from business or industry. They are seeking a particular outcome and, if they invest in that research and the outcome is not the one they want, of course they will not publish. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, focused on charities. I keep harping on about my own experience in the trade union movement, but I must admit that we certainly funded research in the hope that it would support our case for greater workers’ rights and higher pay. It did not always come out the way we wanted and we were sometimes not particularly keen to publish it. We did not prevent the academic from expressing the view and certainly did not stop them from publishing it themselves, but we were not necessarily going to promote it.

The Bill is about freedom of speech—we have had a long debate about it. When it comes to academic freedom and research, there are much more complex questions that should not really be dealt with in the Bill. I am fully sympathetic to some of the arguments that my noble friend Lord Sikka made, but this is not the right Bill, and certainly these amendments are not the right ones.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, Amendment 23 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, seeks to ensure that the provision of grant funding for research does not interfere with the academic’s freedom to edit and publish their research. The only exceptions would be if there was a confidentiality agreement between those giving and receiving the grant made in advance or if a court finds that full publication would threaten national security, public safety or health.

The noble Lord is of course right to be concerned about the provision of grant funding for academic research and, as he acknowledged, we discussed this issue in Grand Committee, although perhaps not conclusively. The approach in the Bill is to place duties on registered higher education providers, their constituent colleges and student unions. I have to say that it goes too far to place duties on others, such as those who give grant funding, and I am also not at all comfortable with the idea of interfering in the private contractual arrangements between parties, which would be the effect of this amendment.

If an academic wishes to seek grant funding, it is for them to agree with the other party what contractual arrangements should apply. That is in fact reflected in proposed new subsection (3)(b) of the noble Lord’s amendment and reflects the Haldane principle: that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review—a principle enshrined in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

However, in my view it would go too far to require legal proceedings to determine whether full publication of research would threaten national security, public safety or health. First, those are extremely limited reasons, which I appreciate is the noble Lord’s aim, but there may well be other legitimate reasons why the grantor would not want full publication. Secondly, this would potentially open the door to costly and time-consuming litigation. I fear that this may have a chilling effect on grant funding if it deters grantors, which is obviously not desirable; it may also affect the academic, as a potential party to the litigation, who is likely not to have the means to fund their part in it. It does not seem to me that the involvement of the courts in such a matter is appropriate.

Noble Lords have suggested that there is a lacuna as regards transparency in the domestic funding of higher education. I hope that I can allay that concern very simply. The Higher Education Statistics Agency collects data about research grants and contracts, which is publicly available. The OfS collects data that it needs to support its functions, including ensuring that providers are financially sustainable, and publishes this through annual reporting.

Given those points, I hope that noble Lords will agree that this amendment is not necessary.

Photo of Lord Sikka Lord Sikka Labour

I am grateful to the Minister and all the other participants in this debate for the vital points that they have made. This amendment is not about sources of funding. It is about the ability to disseminate research findings when the funder decides that the outcomes are not what they were looking for but are of vital interest to other stakeholders. It is when those findings are suppressed that I am really concerned about. I gave an example from my personal experience but, if you met academics on the conference circuit, many of them would tell you similar kinds of stories. That issue remains, and I do not see anything in the Bill to address it.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for his comments but I do not think that this is an issue of codes of practice. Codes of practice cannot bridge asymmetric power relationships. The more powerful are going to define the codes of ethics; they do not give anybody any enforcement rights. You cannot go to a court and say, “I want to enforce a code of conduct”, because no law of any kind has been breached. There are issues around adjudication and enforcement. Before long, we will come back to the need for a legal framework.

I am also not convinced by the argument that it is up to the institutions. What can universities do? They are hungry for external money, and will persuade and pressurise academics to get it. Beyond that, they are not really interested in how the academic negotiates publication. They cannot deal with that. Then the academic is left on his or her own versus what the funder desires. Academics may well have spent a long time on their research but they will have nothing whatever to show in terms of any publications, dissemination or conference presentations. They are left on their own versus a very powerful provider of research. The Bill does not do much on this issue either.

The Minister said that this amendment could have a chilling effect on research grants. I do not see how. Let us say that two parties want to negotiate on some blue-sky thinking, develop some new technology to manufacture engines or whatever, and want to consult an academic. If it is agreed that this kind of research would be confidential, that is fine. Nobody is interfering with that. The point is about what your research findings show. For example, imagine somebody is looking at the effects of living in poor housing and suddenly discovers that a two year-old child is breathing mould and is therefore likely to be disabled for the rest of his life. What should they do? Should they be quiet? At the moment, they can be silenced by the landlord. I am giving people freedom. I am saying that they should have the freedom to communicate that living in those kinds of housing conditions is damaging and can kill people. However, the response I am getting from both Front Benches is, “We can’t have that”. That is unacceptable. People reading this debate will see that it is unreasonable. How will we eradicate the conditions that I have just described for people living in poor housing? I have not heard anything in this debate to offer me any comfort on this point.

Nevertheless, I am grateful to noble Lords. Since both Front Benches are opposed to my amendment, or at least do not fully support it, I have no choice but to withdraw for the time being. However, as and when an opportunity arises, I shall return on this issue.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

Before we continue, I must just correct the record on the recent vote on Amendment 22. There were some technical difficulties and the numbers were slightly different from the ones I announced previously: it was 218 Content, not 213, and 175 Not-Content, as against 172. For the record, the correct figures should be 218 Content, 175 Not-Content.

Clause 5: General functions