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‘Ghost’ research: government is losing track of evidence it commissions

02 Jun 2016

Dr Prateek Buch, policy associate at Sense about Science discusses the findings of Sir Stephen Sedley’s inquiry on missing government research.

The UK government spends around £2.5bn a year on policy research, but does not know how many studies it has commissioned or which of them have been published. That’s the disturbing principal finding of an inquiry into why government research goes missing, which Sense about Science published today.

We asked the Rt Hon Sir Stephen Sedley to lead the inquiry as a response to media stories of government research into food banksimmigration and fracking being suppressed or withheld. These reports and others had allegedly been suppressed because the findings were politically awkward. Such cases are troubling as they risk damaging the trust between policymakers and the research community, without which it is less likely that reliable evidence informs public policy.

Sir Stephen set out to uncover the scale of research being withheld, but found that government does not keep records of what happens to government research. This stopped us from determining how frequently reports are delayed.

Freedom of Information requests I sent to all Whitehall departments revealed that seven keep no central record of the research they commission. So there is no place for the public to find out about how much research government has done or whether it’s been published. This doesn’t just make government less accountable, it means departments don’t know what work they’ve done themselves in the past, leaving officials reliant on search engines or third-party websites to track down studies they have paid for.

Some departments (HealthTransportEnvironment, Food and Rural Affairs, and International Development) do have publicly searchable databases of research they’ve commissioned. What does this show? That the sky doesn’t fall in if departments publish what research has been commissioned and when, if at all, it is published. So Sir Stephen’s principal recommendation is that government maintains a central register of all externally commissioned research. He suggests that if publication is delayed for any reason, whether to do with process or with the fast-moving nature of the policy agenda, that delay should be tracked and explained.

The inquiry did not uncover any recent examples of research being suppressed indefinitely. We did find some stories of delayed publication, as the nine case studies in the report show. This can be just as harmful as suppression, as it prevents public scrutiny of the evidence behind policy. We found such delays can be caused by fear of the way complex, uncertain research will affect the political agenda, uncertainty over how to handle peer review, and a lack of clarity over what counts as government research.

The report also sets out examples of government and researchers working together to ensure tricky research gets handled well, which informed the inquiry’s other recommendations for:

  • Clarity on what constitutes externally commissioned government research.
  • A clear commitment to prompt publication in research contracts.
  • Routine publication of research government has considered in policy formulation with, if appropriate, reasons for rejecting it.
  • A clear statement of the current requirements for prompt publication and adherence to them.
  • Training in research for policy communicators.

The UK government says it aspires “to be the most transparent government in the world.” Sir Stephen’s inquiry shows the need for much greater transparency about government research, which is a vital part of developing and evaluating the impact of policy. So what happens next? Sense about Science will continue to press the government to ensure that there is a single, searchable database of all government research, and to improve government’s capacity to talk about research in the political environment. Do get in touch if you can lend your expertise, and help make government more open in the way it handles research evidence.

Sir Stephen Sedley’s report, Missing Evidence: An inquiry into the delayed publication of government-commissioned research, is available at http://researchinquiry.org

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