Michelle Donelan “kicks woke ideology out of science”

One of the more surreal moments of Conservative Party Conference was the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology’s announcement that she intends to “Kick Woke Ideology out of Science”.

It doesn’t seem to have been accompanied by one of those social media graphics that central government likes to produce, but Conservative Party HQ had a stab and sent it viral:

Plenty of folk on the socials not minded to watch Donelan’s speech from the hall were been confused by the apparent breadth of the announcement – but it was actually focussed on something pretty specific – the “trans issue”:

We are the party of evidence, we are the party of scientific rigour, and I will stand up for these core values. But increasingly, thanks to the slow creep of wokeism this… is under attack.

As such it was one of many political “wedge issues” that ministers seem to be pursuing:

Keir Starmer has said that these issues don’t matter to the public. He thinks that the legitimate concerns of the scientific community and of millions of Britons don’t matter. Well conference, I think it does matter. I think it matters when scientists are told by university bureaucrats that they cannot ask legitimate research questions about biological sex. And I think it matters when Scotland’s Chief of Staff issues guidance stating that datasets can only be collected in exceptional circumstances. And I think it matters when the ONS has to be taken to the High Court because its census guidance says it’s possible to change your biological sex. I think it matters when in 2021 Police Scotland and upset a male rapist who self identifies as a woman will then be recorded statistically as a female rapist by the police.

The reference to “scientific facts” is one that is often used by those on the “gender critical” side of the debate – hence a review from the DSIT Secretary:

Any credible scientist will tell you that gender and sex are two different things to suggest otherwise is not only scientifically illiterate. It actually damages scientific research and statistics in everything from population studies to medicine to sport. And unlike comrade Keir, we will not sit idly by and watch an intolerant few stifle the light of science that leads in the right direction. So today conference, I am writing a review into the use of sex and gender questions in scientific research and statistics, including in public bodies. We will produce robust guidance within six months [the review will be] conducted by Professor Alice Sullivan, of UCL who will report to my department and also to Cabinet Office. The review will leave no stone unturned in the effort to protect scientific integrity and to let our world class scientific community accurately get on with their jobs.”

The DSIT website describes it as thus:

Separately, a review into sex and gender data will be launched to ensure researchers and public bodies can gather the information they need to effectively plan key services. As a funder of research and producer and user of statistics, the government relies on accurate information to inform research and effective policymaking in a wide range of fields, from health to crime, to education to the economy. The review, supported by the Cabinet Office and Economic and Social Research Council, a part of UK Research and Innovation, will be led by Professor Alice Sullivan of University College London. Its terms of reference will be agreed in the coming weeks and is expected to conclude by spring of next year.

Kevin Guyan, a research fellow at the University of Glasgow and author of a book on gender, sex and sexuality data, said the intervention shows a misunderstanding of how research works:

Donelan’s mission to address ‘wokeism in science’ is a solution in search of a problem… [she] offers zero evidence to support the claim that researchers are being told they cannot ask questions about biological sex… Donelan’s comments are an insult to these endeavours and reflect the dying days of a cruel government that is demonising trans people to mask their own failures in power.”

Meanwhile Maya Forstater, executive director of the gender critical group Sex Matters, said:

This is excellent news and not before time, as a review is urgently needed. Sorting out data on sex is at the heart of solving how society protects everyone’s rights when it comes to biological sex and gender self-expression.This review should make it clear where data on sex needs to be comprehensive, accurate and public, and where the information may be kept private. Professor Alice Sullivan is an excellent selection to lead the review after her tireless work on the need for clear data on sex in the census.

Although not mentioned in the speech, the Telegraph noted “figures close to Ms Donelan” highlighting the Athena Swan charter an example of “concerning developments that she hopes this new review can address” – although Advance HE’s general data monitoring guidance recommends asking questions about both sex and gender identity where possible and where confidentiality can be assured:

For the purposes of Athena Swan, we recommend the collection and analysis of departmental culture survey data by sex as a minimum going forward; this is to ensure that your Athena Swan data collection supports your statutory responsibilities (e.g. the Public Sector Equality Duty in England, Scotland and Wales). Applicants can choose to collect and analyse gender identity data as well as sex data. Where applicants have assured themselves that they are meeting their legal responsibilities, they may also choose to use survey data analysed by gender identity instead of sex to inform their Athena Swan assessment and action plan.

The choice of Alice Sullivan is a controversial one – she’s a key figure in the “debate” whose views and expertise both make her ideal to lead the review or render the review a non-starter before its terms of reference even get agreed.

Similarly, while some would argue that the review will strengthen academic freedom on the basis that the “culture” in some universities or departments stops or restricts data collection on sex, others would argue that the review itself represents an attack on academic freedom.

Whether the review ends up feeding into the Office for Students’ agenda on academic freedom and freedom of speech is anyone’s guess.

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