UKRI takes the heat out of the minister’s missive

Michelle Donelan gets a reply - and not quite what she was hoping for

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

Over the weekend Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, tweeted at UKRI on appointments made to Research England’s EDI advisory group.

In it Donelan took the divisive step of criticising individual academics while raising concerns about the wider equality work of UKRI.

As I wrote on Wonkhe, the very important issues of free-speech, public appointments and EDI deserve more attention than a weekend twitter exchange fuelled by a hasty policy note-cum-press-release from the minister’s preferred think tank.

An open letter has gathered pace over the week concerned that the minister’s actions represented inappropriate interference in freedom of speech and drew into question the independence of UKRI. As my colleague DK has noted elsewhere on the site the minister has limited powers to direct who UKRI appoints to what.

UKRI has written a response to the minister that toes a careful line in agreeing to suspend and review Research England’s EDI advisor group while refusing to immediately scrap the group entirely, abandon wider EDI work, or single out individuals on its sub-committee for criticism.

Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UKRI, has written to the minister that she is

deeply concerned about the issues you raise in your letter and I am taking swift and robust action accordingly. This action is guided by the principles you articulate, including the Nolan Principles and freedom of speech within the law, and will follow the procedures set out in the advisory group conditions of appointment.

The swift and robust action is to suspend the work of the EDI Advisory Group; investigate the specific complaints made by the minister, review the future of the EDI group (to allow for an “evidenced, principled”, board decision); and continue the ongoing review of UKRI’s advisory structures. The work will be concluded “as quickly as reasonably possible.”

UKRI’s response will give the minister satisfaction that they are responding to her concerns but it astutely avoids tackling some of the core implications of the minister’s tweet.

Leyser has not taken, or asked Research England to take, immediate action against the individuals named by Donelan. This would have added pressure to individuals that are undoubtedly impacted by being thrust into the public spotlight. That UKRI has said they have to carry out a process based on documented codes of conduct for appointees stands in contrast to the broad accusations made by the minister.

UKRI also notably does not concede that it has gone too far on EDI issues. In fact, Leyser’s letter notes that their strategy on EDI work already aligns with government ambitions, and represents a part of delivering their Science and Technology Framework (and the wider UKRI strategy that was approved by the Secretary of State). It is a polite but clear repudiation that UKRI’s EDI work is unduly bureaucratic or misaligned to the government’s wider research ambitions.

UKRI has committed to looking at the nature of appointments. Some will undoubtedly see this as UKRI conceding ground over an issue which is at its heart about freedom of speech. On the other hand their commitment is a significant one to look at this issue carefully in a way that a weekend twitter exchange cannot do justice. Or as they say:

We will consider whether these processes have worked as intended in this instance, whether further guidance or training can be offered to support those who take up positions on our advisory committees and related bodies, and whether there are lessons learned that can be applied more widely across UKRI. We will consider the balance of our approach to due diligence.

UKRI is also considering its processes for the establishment of and appointment to advisory groups including:

 support for members to manage issues of real and perceived impartiality.

Politically, UKRI is trying to walk a middle ground of taking the heat away from individuals while reviewing its wider processes. The benefit of this approach is that it allows time to consider the deeply fraught issues of public appointments, free speech, and providing robust advice on EDI issues. The risk is that in taking a middle ground UKRI is challenged by both academics and government.

Of course, suspension of the advisory group does not solve the underlying issues of free-speech and public appointments nor will it immediately quell the anger that has emerged over the weekend.

However, it does give time but hopefully not too much as to slow down UKRI’s important work on EDI yet to be done.

14 responses to “UKRI takes the heat out of the minister’s missive

  1. Slightly disappointed that WonkHEs angle here is “Minister overreaches” rather than “public body appoints senior member who openly supports senseless murder by proscribed group”. With this and your columnists trying to spin this onto the free speech bill (plus repeated impassioned defences of the NUS and denial of their obvious antisemitism by a wonkhe columnist in recent years), it’s clear WonkHE isn’t designed to be accessible for all in the HE world.

    1. Slightly disappointed that this reply’s angle is pretending that any of the academics named in the letter “openly support senseless murder by prescribed group” which isn’t even the allegation being made by the Minister

      1. Following the money and seeking favour for job security reasons leads formerly reasonable people to do awful things…

    2. There’s no need for such histrionics here, “Disappointed”. It’s clear that you’re distressed by WonkHE’s insistence on remaining in touch with reality, and it would be best to find a way to cope with your disappointment that doesn’t involve you making yourself look so daft. To be clear: “senior member” is a stretch and “openly supports senseless murder by proscribed group” is a lie, so you’re either hopelessly credulous or wilfully pushing calumny that you know to be false.

      Either way, continuing to assert that which is not in evidence isn’t actually going to persuade anyone who isn’t already suckling greedily at the teat of right-wing disinformation. Best to grow up and move onto solid food, I’d say.

    3. The insistence on free speech would have been a lot more convincing if 2500 had written a similar letter when Roger Scruton was cancelled from an advisory role. Or, worse, when Kathleen Stock was forced out of her university. I’m all for free speech – but if you want to defend it, you have to defend it all.

    4. “openly supports senseless murder by proscribed group”

      She did no such thing. That’s defamation.

  2. This reply is raving lunacy. Donelan offer FOUR WORDS as quoted evidence there was a problem. One of them was “and”. None of them endorsed violence. Saying otherwise is a vicious lie.

  3. Glad to see a measured and careful reading of the UKRI reply after seeing a number of hot-headed responses to it on social media that didn’t appear to have picked up on its nuances. The only thing I would add to this account is that I wondered whether the emphasis in the UKRI letter on evidence-based conclusions is a tacit rebuke to the lack of evidence in the Secretary of State’s original communication.

    1. Agreed, Susan, although I understand why many were disappointed. Until yesterday I had no understanding of the constraints UKRI are under when it comes to what they can and cannot say in response to such blatant and brazen falsehoods, and I imagine that’s true for many others. I think what many people want is the precise opposite of nuance, which is understandable given how completely inappropriate and unjustified Ms Donelan’s letter was – not to mention the predictable (and thus arguably intended) deluge of trolling it brought down on the people she named.

  4. Kudos to Ottoline Leyser, a show of the classy diplomacy completely lacked by Michelle Donelan’s heavy handed, clumsy, hypocritical attempt at Politics. Donelan tramples on freedom of speech, while putting individuals in our sector in direct harm. Complete contempt for the public, for society, an utter lack of integrity and yet another example of a absolutely clueless government. *sigh

  5. I don’t think “UKRI has written a response to the minister that toes a careful line” and “UKRI also notably does not concede that it has gone too far on EDI issues” are fair representations of the reply to Donelan, the tone of which can only be described as grovelling and obsequious. The idea that Leyser’s reply is somehow politically deft and skilful falls apart as soon as you see how many signatories the open letter has (all of whom are current or former recipients of UKRI fellowships/grants) and the number of resignations from UKRI boards from scientists today.

  6. Why is no-one mentioning Iain Mansfield in all of this? He was Donnelan’s favoured SPAD at the DfE, is now at Policy Exchange and will no doubt have had an awful lot to do with this. I wouldn’t be suprised if he was the instigator of this and actualy wrote the tweet.

  7. Yes UKRI held firm on many substantive points but it remains the case that ministerial pressure, exceeding ministerial authority, led to suspending the RE EDI advisory panel on the last day of Black History Month. This is unequivocally wrong. Does anyone think this is the end of the matter? What is stopping Policy Exchange from sending out another briefing and the SoS exceeding her authority again in response with more “requests”? Imagine we enter an era of the SoS intervening routinely on UKRI operations, how do you imagine it would have begun? Surely that would look like right now. And don’t expect the SoS to be as open to reason as academia. The DfE already monitor social media of teachers critical of government policy, & government has blocked several government-critical scientists from speaking in their expert capacities at government events. This is a government that has crossed sabres with the RNLI, RSPB, National Trust, doctors, nurses, academics, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the United Nations, and more. The SoS’s letter is carefully couched as requests to stay within the law (I found David Kernohan’s WonkHE blog very helpful in explaining these constraints), and the UKRI response should have been to decline them all.

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