Michelle Donelan pays damages following freedom of speech fallout

Michelle Donelan and DSIT have to pay costs and damages, while UKRI reconvenes EDI advisory group following minister's missive

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, has agreed to pay damages and costs to Kate Sang after suggesting that the new member of Research England’s Expert Advisory Group on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion had expressed sympathy for Hamas.

Following a tweet by Sang which the minister initially suggested indicated her “sympathy and support for Hamas,” and further concerns about advisory group colleague Kamna Patel, the minister made the extraordinary move of writing a public letter to UKRI in which she called for the research funder to “immediately close this group and undertake an urgent investigation into how this happened.”

The minister’s tweet, which has now been deleted, drew heavily on a Policy Exchange policy note which Bindmans solicitors, who represented Sang in the libel action and supported both Sang and Patel in their UKRI investigation, noted:

Unfortunately, the basis for Michelle Donelan’s false allegations was a seriously misleading press release from the lobby group Policy Exchange which did not include the link to the Guardian article tweeted by Professor Sang, just the headline which referred to a crackdown on Hamas support by Suella Braverman.

We understand that a complaint has been made to Policy Exchange about the press release, but so far the think tank has refused to amend it. We’ve asked Policy Exchange for a comment on this.

In addition to withdrawing her initial tweet Donelan has released a further statement via twitter:

As I said to the media at the time, and I want to reiterate now: I have never thought or claimed that Professor Sang, or any member of the Board, committed a criminal offence. I fully accept that she is not an extremist, a supporter of Hamas or any other proscribed organisation and I note that an independent organisation has included that there is no evidence that she is.

For UKRI’s part it has concluded that:

Following the independent investigation, the UKRI Board has found no evidence of a breach of the Research England Expert Advisory Group on EDI’s terms of reference and no failure to uphold the Seven Principles of Public Life (The Nolan Principles). Moreover, the UKRI Board found no evidence in the public domain of support for a proscribed terrorist organisation or the sharing of extremist material and no grounds to remove any individual members of the Research England Expert Advisory Group on EDI.

The group will now reconvene but with a view expressed by Bidmans that “UKRI’s lengthy investigation process was marked by unfairness and caused a great deal of unnecessary reputational damage and personal distress”.

It appears that the taxpayer has footed the bill. The Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology told the lobby it paid the required funds the claimant, and:

This was subject to all the usual cross-government processes and aims to reduce the overall costs to the taxpayer that could result from protracted legal action.

A mess

This is a mess which is of the minister’s making. It is extraordinary that the Secretary of State has had to pay damages. It was always a disproportionate overreach of ministerial authority to single out individual academics for criticism like this. And it was also entirely avoidable

The minister likely never had the authority to begin with to direct UKRI to remove members of its funding council’s sub-committees. The minister has a defined set of powers in which she can direct activity of its funding agencies. She is entirely entitled to an opinion on appointments in public life. But, in writing a letter which was so public, ultimately false, and nakedly politically motivated, she entered an unhappy middle ground of a disproportionate use of her public role to defame an individual without the same platform.

It is not only a galling experience for the academics involved but the use of such a blunt tool leaves wider questions on research culture that are much harder to answer. There is a legitimate debate to be had on whether any public views within the law should ever disbar a person from holding a public role. The wider work of equality within research has never been more important, particularly with REF 2029 on the horizon. And the extent to which any level of ministerial involvement in appointments to its funding bodies is appropriate is a worthwhile discussion.

However, the long-term effect of the minister’s letter is that the important work of further EDI in research has been delayed. There are almost certainly academics that will now think twice before applying for public appointments. And there is a renewed bad blood between parts of the academic community, UKRI, and the government more generally.

What now

The issue with culture wars is eventually they run into the reality of the judicial system. An upside, if any, from this case is that it may make it less likely that a minister will choose to intervene in a future scenario in such a public way (or at least without speaking to the parties involved first.)

It is also hard to imagine that an individual could now be denied membership of one of the research council’s sub-committees even where they have expressed views a minister finds distasteful if they are within the bounds of the law. Each government agency will have its own rules on its own appointments but it asks a wider question on whether any legal views should be disbarring to public appointments. The issue with the freedom of speech debate is that it also has to include views ministers don’t like.

It also leaves UKRI in a difficult position. They state they held a “well-governed, principled, evidence-based independent investigation of the Secretary of State’s concerns reporting to the UKRI Board.” They were strong in refusing the minister’s overtures to shut down the group and tactful in gently pushing back on the importance of their EDI work. This was likely a public spat they would always come out badly in.

However, suggestions by the complainants that UKRI’s complaints process was unduly influenced by the minister’s position and marked by “unfairness” should be taken seriously. The only possible remedy is the actions which UKRI takes now on EDI work cemented within its strategy that the minister has signed off on.

What next

This will not be the last of the war on “woke science” nor will it be the last time that a member of a committee somewhere in the vast machinery of government funding is accused of having inappropriate views. It may well be the last time a minister chooses to air these views in such a manner.

The best case scenario is that the academics involved feel vindicated in pursuing their complaints and UKRI feels able to pursue the important work this committee was established to do unimpeded.

The worst is that this becomes another footnote in a series of unserious distractions from the difficult work of making the UK a science superpower.

7 responses to “Michelle Donelan pays damages following freedom of speech fallout

      1. Missed that but surely the headline should read “The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology pays damages following freedom of speech fallout” as Donelan has not paid a penny?

        1. It doesn’t say she has paid – but that she agreed to pay – and I’m sure that she did, indeed, sign off any payments.

          1. The headline says “Michelle Donelan pays damages following freedom of speech fallout”

  1. A satisfying outcome for colleagues concerned, to a chilling series of events initiated by a SoS with little command of the facts, and now taxpayers picking up the tab. An omnishambles of epic proportions. Is there a whiff of resignation in the air?

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