Academics say research is being hindered by universities' fear of online backlash
Academics say they have been forced to leave the country to pursue their research interests as British universities are accused of blocking studies over fears of backlash on social media.
As they come under increasing attack from online activists, some of the country’s leading academics have accused universities of putting their reputations before their responsibility to defend academic freedom.
Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph, they claim that university ethics committees are now “drifting into moral vanity” by vetoing research in areas that are seen as “politically incorrect”.
Their comments come amid widespread concern for free speech on campuses, with the Government urging universities to do more to counter the rise of so-called safe spaces and “no-platforming”.
The academics have decided to speak out as James Caspian, one of the country’s leading gender specialists, revealed that he is planning to take Bath Spa University to judicial review over its decision to turn down his research into transgenderism.
A professor who recently left a prestigious Russell Group institution to work in Italy said that while safeguards were needed to ensure research was conducted ethically, some universities now appeared to be “covering their own arses”.
“I’ve certainly heard and know of ethics committees voicing concerns about parts of research that would to most of us seem ridiculous. I think they sometimes go too far.
“In general I’m supportive of ethics committees, but there is room for discussion on their criteria. Attracting a lot unwanted attraction on social media...most researchers would not consider that relevant.
“That’s a matter for the PR office, not an ethics committee.”
Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans, a fellow of King’s College London who has previously sat on research awarding bodies, claimed that some universities were becoming “authoritarian”.
Universities project themselves as places of open debate, while at the same time they are very worried about being seen to fall foul of the consensus,” she added.
“They are increasingly managerial and bureaucratic. They are now prioritising the risk of reputational damage over their duty to uphold freedom of inquiry.”
Dr Brunskell-Evans said she has encountered resistance when researching the dangers associated with prostitution, adding that many universities had “shut down” any critical analysis of the subject which might offend advocates in favour of legalisation.
Whilst working at the University of Leicester, she claimed that a critical analysis she published of Vanity Fair magazine’s visual representation of the transgendering of Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner had been pulled after complaints were made.
It was later republished after the university’s lawyers were consulted. The University of Leicester was unavailable for comment.
Others said research decisions are increasingly based on how much money could be generated through research grants, meaning “trendy” and “fashionable” subjects were being prioritised over controversial topics.
“The work done by myself and others would not happen today. University now is about only speaking views which attract funding,” said Prof Sheila Jeffreys, a British feminist and former political scientist at the University of Melbourne.
“I was offered the job in Melbourne because they wanted someone specifically to teach this stuff. It would have been difficult to get back [into a British university]. I suspect that even if I wanted to take up a fellowship I would struggle.”
Dr Werner Kierski, a psychotherapist who has taught at Anglia Ruskin and Middlesex, added: “They [ethics committees] have become hysterical. If it’s not blocking research, it’s putting limits on what researchers can do.
“In one case, I had an ethics committee force my researchers to text me before and after interviewing people, to confirm that they are still alive.
It’s completely unnecessary and deeply patronising.
“We’ve reached a point where research conducted in other countries will become increasingly dominant. UK research will become insignificant because they [researchers] are so stifled by ethics requirements.”
Bath Spa University caused controversy earlier this year, when it emerged that it had declined Mr Caspian’s research proposal to examine why growing numbers of transgender people were reversing their transition surgery.
After accepting his proposal in 2015, the university later U-turned when Mr Caspian asked to look for participants on online forums, informing him that his research could provoke “unnecessary offence” and “attacks on social media”.
Bath Spa has since offered to refund a third of Mr Caspian’s fees, but has rejected his request for an internal review.
A university spokesman said it would “not be commenting further at this stage”.
Mr Caspian is now crowdfunding online in order to fight the case, and has received almost £6,000 in donations from fellow academics and trans people who support his work.
In a letter sent this week to the universities minister Jo Johnson, Mr Caspian writes that the “suppression of research on spurious grounds” is a growing problem in Britain.
“I have already heard of academics leaving the UK for countries where they felt they would be more welcomed to carry out their research,” the letter continues.
“I believe that it should be made clear that any infringement of our academic freedom should not be allowed. I would ask you to consider the ramifications should academics continue to be censored in this way.”
Last night, Mr Johnson said that academic freedom was the “foundation of higher education”, adding that he expected universities to “protect and promote it”.
Under the new Higher Education and Research Act, he said that universities would be expected to champion “the freedom to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions”.
A spokesman for Universities UK said that its members had “robust processes” to ensure that all research was conducted appropriately.
“They also recognise that there may be legitimate academic reasons to study matters which may be controversial in nature,” they added.