The Politics of Research: The Consequences of Academic Compliance with the State

The Politics of Research: The Consequences of Academic Compliance with the State

Mark Hayes

In the UK there are some critical issues surrounding academic research in the social sciences, and the consequences (intended and unintended) of compliance with state objectives. This short essay will touch upon some of the key difficulties with reference to a few pertinent examples.

The fact is that in recent years the context within which intellectual production takes place has altered significantly. In effect there has been a cultural revolution in Higher Education which really gathered momentum during the Thatcher era. The market mechanism was introduced far more directly in the name of efficiency, with a managerial emphasis on audit, assessment and regulation. In this process research became much more of a commodity underpinned by commercial imperatives and financial incentives. Universities have been re-configured as large-scale corporate concerns and have become even more deeply integrated into the private sector. The role of Higher Education as a public good was downplayed and neo-liberal assumptions were enthusiastically embraced at management level.

Initially the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), introduced in 1985-86, was designed to enhance excellence by imposing a hierarchy of knowledge production. Publications would be examined, and funding tied more explicitly to research output that was considered to be of value. In effect the emphasis on more rigorous evaluation and control meant that research output was distorted by subjective quality and performance indicators as university departments scrambled for limited resources.

In 2014, as a result of criticism from academics and teaching unions the RAE was replaced by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which was similar to the old paradigm but contained the additional component of measuring the “impact” of research. Henceforth research would also be gauged by the “impact” it made on society and the economy. In effect this emphasis transformed university departments and academics into active, self-marketing entrepreneurs attempting to establish customer-client relationships with end-users, including a variety of state institutions. This concern to comply with measurable “impact” not only recalibrated researchers as funding foragers, the supply-side process began to exert a critical influence on the parameters of “legitimate” research.

For example, the Home Office, as a key source of funding, exerted a huge influence over the nature and purpose of criminological research. In this way research has become more closely tied to the requirements of funders and this has had the effect of ensuring a functional, policy-related compliance rather than critical engagement. Overall, recent intervention via REF and the “impact” agenda has had a negative influence on autonomous research and has encouraged a sterile emphasis on “outcomes”, which militates against the construction of critical narratives. Academia’s critical distance from the state has been dramatically diminished.

Unfortunately, deference to state fundholders has precipitated some extraordinary unintended outcomes. For example, a recent project by Liverpool University into so-called “dissident” Irish Republicanism, which was designed to procure funding from the ERSC, resulted in some spectacular examples of ethical malpractice. The aim was to interview “dissident” republicans in an effort to elucidate and evaluate their political perspectives. It was undoubtedly a very worthy scholarly exercise. However, according to the actual ESRC proposal, the information provided by Republicans and gathered in the field, was scheduled to be passed on to the British Army, the security services and Unionist politicians without the knowledge of the participants (indeed the project leader, Prof. Jonathan Tonge, claimed in the proposal that “briefings” had already taken place with the Chief Constable of the PSNI, the General Officer Commanding of the British Army and MI5).

In effect, the project was being sold as a source of strategic intelligence for the security agencies of the state. Obviously, those republicans participating in the project should have been informed of its ultimate purpose – and if this had happened then most, if not all of them, would have withdrawn immediately. The primary researcher may not have had the intention of working on behalf of the state or the security services, but that was the logical consequence of his proposal. Of course, in the absence of definitive evidence, it would be unreasonable to impute nefarious motives, but there is no doubt that researchers in the field (who were unaware of the precise details in the proposal) were placed in a very invidious position. In all probability the toxic proposal was simply the result of the over-riding desire to procure research funding from the ESRC by demonstrating “impact” on politicians, policy makers and key participants. Clearly the enormous pressure placed on researchers to deliver “outcomes” is problematic and can precipitate disturbing examples of bad practice.

In fact, the dead hand of the state in Higher Education is particularly evident when it comes to security and counter-terrorism strategy. As a consequence of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015) HE institutions are now under an obligation to help prevent “radicalization”, disrupt “poisonous ideologies” and identify individuals who might be drawn into “terrorism”. “Extremism” is defined as opposition to “British values” such as tolerance, democracy, liberty and the rule of law. The “Prevent” framework effectively draws universities into a surveillance and policing role. Here the relationship between the free production of knowledge and responding to the policy priorities of the state are drawn into direct conflict. In effect the ideological power of the state is being deployed to impose a spurious “common sense” about certain security issues, as the insidious culture of control is insinuated into the consciousness of those who should be freely engaged in teaching and research.

So why is academic autonomy and independence from the state so important? We can perhaps answer this with reference to a specific example. Consider the article entitled: “The battle for Baghdad: Testing hypotheses about insurgency from risk heterogeneity, repeat victimization, and denial policing approaches” which appeared in Terrorism and Political Violence in 2015 written by Alex Braithwaite and Shane D. Johnson. The research used military data and multivariate research strategies to construct “logistical regression models with spatial and temporal lags” in order to study the “tendency for violence to cluster and diffuse at the local level”. In the abstract the authors note that “recent research has demonstrated that insurgent attacks in Iraq cluster in time and space in a manner similar to that observed for the spread of a disease” and “we hypothesize that the precise patterns will vary from one place to another, but that more attacks will occur in areas that are heavily populated, where coalition forces are active, and along road networks”. Drawing on the theoretical repertoire of “environmental criminology”, which attempts to explain patterns of urban crime, they construct a complicated formula of spatial clustering (see diagram above). Indeed, the authors also make the observation that “while we focus upon the single case of Baghdad in this article, it is likely that our contribution could speak to insurgent campaigns elsewhere too”.

Of course, this research is not invalid or inadequate, and might well be construed as extremely sophisticated and useful – it certainly it might be of value to the military. However, a more independent (critical) approach might question the justification for a military occupation in Iraq and the flimsy pretext for invasion in the first place. Perhaps the real “crime” was perpetrated by the forces of occupation and, moreover, the politicians who sanctioned it? Functionalist narratives may yield policy-relevant data, but critical appraisal may be of much greater utility in terms of providing a clearer overall perspective. The fact is that, given the nature of university funding and the “impact” agenda, it is far more likely to produce the former rather than the latter. Studying the machinations of those planning to assassinate Caesar might be construed as a legitimate activity, but so is asking why so many people want him dead – even it makes Caesar uncomfortable.

All research takes place within a political context and there are underlying normative assumptions about the research being conducted. Politics inserts itself everywhere – in the choice of research area, via the methodology used, the data collected and how the evidence is interpreted and used. These assumptions, whether implicit or explicit, are often powerfully reinforced by those agencies funding the research. In short, the state prefers research that complies with its own interests in order to meet its overall objectives.

Unfortunately, quite often those aims do not reflect the interests of society, the cause of social justice or human rights (otherwise there would be much more funding of subjects related to, for example, corporate negligence, financial malfeasance, deaths in police custody or miscarriages of justice). The state has its own, discernible political agenda and researchers should at least be aware of the pitfalls of a proximity induced by funding opportunities. Critical scholarship might be entirely unwelcome in some quarters, and dreadfully under-funded, but some academics will continue to focus on their civic duty and their obligations to the wider community – and they will continue to ask awkward questions.

Hillyard, J. Sim, S. Tombs and D. Whyte (2004) “Leaving a ‘stain upon the silence’: contemporary criminology and the politics of dissent” British Journal of Criminology vol 44 no.3 May pp.369-90.
Martin (1998) Information Liberation: Challenging the corruption of information power London: Freedom Press.
Mills, N. Massoumi and D. Miller (2019) “The ethics of researching ‘terrorism’ and political violence: a sociological approach” Contemporary Social Science.
Mancha Productions (2019) “The Politics of Research”, September 2019.


Mark Hayes is Senior Lecturer in Human Sciences, in the School of Business, Law and Communications at Solent University. This article is based in part on: Mark Hayes (2018) The ESRC university project on ‘dissident’ Irish republicanism: some reflections on the relationship between research, academia, and the security state, Contemporary Social Science.

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