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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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Politicians can't have it both ways when it comes to evidence

The government has delayed or failed to release reports on the increased use of food banks and on immigration, despite guidelines that urge prompt publication. We must now press for timely publication of all government research in the interests of accountable public policy.

In January 2013 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) commissioned researchers at the University of Warwick to examine the evidence around the increased use of food banks. The researchers completed their work in March 2013 but their report wasn't published by Defra until February 2014 – over a year since the study, designed as a Rapid Evidence Assessment, was commissioned.

Last year civil servants were asked to look at the effects of immigration on the labour market, re-analysing a widely-criticised 2012 study by the independent Migration Advisory Committee. Their report appears to have been blocked by No. 10 Downing Street, possibly because the new findings contradict claims made by the Home Secretary on the back of the previous, discredited study.

The Principles of Scientific Advice to Government, civil service guidance on publishing social research, and the Government Office for Science’s Guidelines on the Use of Scientific and Engineering Advice in Policy Making all specify that scientific and social research done by and for government should be published in a timely fashion – yet this has clearly not happened in either case. These aren’t the only examples of government-commissioned studies being delayed or altered – last year a key report into minimum alcohol pricing was delayed, and an LSE survey of academics commissioned by government to research public policy revealed that they’re leaned on to produce ‘politically useful reports.’

The delay in publishing these findings has meant that debates on the rising use of food banks and the effects of immigration are not informed by the best-available evidence. The excuses for not publishing are weak. We’ve seen government ministers and members of the clergy making contrasting claims about why more people are using food banks – and yet Defra has sat on research that addresses many of these claims, leaving the public ill-informed about the evidence. The delayed study on food banks also identified gaps in the evidence-base on food insecurity in the UK – gaps that researchers could have begun to address sooner if the report had been published once it had passed peer review.

On immigration, Theresa May made strong claims on the back of flawed research on immigration, while new analysis that contradicts those claims has gone unpublished – politicians can’t have it both ways.

These are not an isolated incidents – despite all the guidelines and codes-of-practice dealing with the timely, transparent publication of scientific evidence, we know of a number of public policy cases where studies are shelved or altered to suit a political agenda. We aren’t arguing that research should dictate the terms of what elected representatives set as policy. But discussions on issues as important as food poverty, substance abuse or immigration need to be informed by the best available evidence, so it isn’t on for politicians to parry questions about policy by commissioning research that doesn’t then get published.

We have therefore written to Defra Chief Scientist Professor Ian Boyd, and Government Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Mark Walport, asking them to explain the delay in publishing the food bank research. We’ve also written to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister asking them to explain the delay in publishing the immigration research. We’re asking them to tell us what they’re going to do to ensure future research is published promptly.

As Professor Karen Rowlingson, who researches social policy and inequality at the University of Birmingham, told me, “The researchers were asked to complete this study in an extremely short timescale: within 9 weeks; but then the government sat on this important research for a year. The authors were very clear about the limitations of the study, given the time constraints, but they did identify key issues and clear gaps in the evidence base that it would have been good to have published sooner.”

We need answers from government on how they’ll ensure research is published promptly.

If government delaying publication of a study is something you have experience of, please get in touch – my email address is pbuch@senseaboutscience.org