Should we regulate political research?

Dealing with political research material can get you into a lot of trouble these days. How can access properly be regulated? Murray Goulden has an ingenious solution.

Ideas - Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 4:22 - 1 Comment

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Murray Goulden

One outcome of the recent arrests of a student and member of staff at Nottingham University under terrorism legislation has been the suggestion that some form of regulation is put in place regarding academic access to sensitive materials. Such regulation is likely to take the form of an ethics board along the lines of the pre-existing National Research Ethics Service (NRES) model. NRES was setup to protect the rights of participants in scientific research – a perfectly laudable aim. But the application of such a model to social scientists’ access to sensitive materials would be a terrible mistake, for three key reasons.

The first reason is the most obvious. By definition, the role of the social scientist is to investigate society, and the institutions around which that society is formed. Through such enquiry, institutions can be held to account, their claims tested and outcomes measured.

In an age in which investigative journalism is increasingly squeezed of life by economic forces and complicit media barons, such a role is more vital than ever. Ostensibly, any such ‘Access to Sensitive Materials Ethics Board’ (my own term, henceforth ASMEB) would exist to avoid ‘confusions’ like the one that condemned Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza to 6 days detention, and may yet cost the latter his residency in the UK.

How would such a board operate in practice however? There are two possibilities: either it would be a toothless entity that exists purely to rubber stamp research, or it would serve to restrict some forms of data even from being viewed by the researcher. The former would be a pointless exercise in bureaucracy, the latter a fundamental constraint on the freedom of scientific enquiry.

Who would staff such a board? NRES boards are “specially trained in research ethics and often have the sort of experience which will be useful in scrutinising the ethical aspects of a research proposal. These include: patients; members of the public; nurses; GPs; hospital doctors; statisticians; pharmacists and academics, as well as people with specific ethical expertise gained through a legal, philosophical or theological background.” An ASMEB would not be controlling access to potentially vulnerable individuals by research institutions however. Quite the opposite – it would be controlling vulnerable individual’s access to basic political freedoms. Who would have the appropriate expertise to take on such a mantle?

The truth is that in practice neither question is likely to matter, as such a board would not exist to deal with access requests but rather to disincentivise such requests in the first place. This would occur directly through stifling bureaucracy that was both time and resource consuming. More obliquely, but far more powerfully, it would legitimise the idea that taboo material exists, and that such material is dangerous.

David Edgar makes this point with regard to Section 28: “No one was prosecuted under the Conservative government’s criminalisation of the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. But that knee-jerk legislation undoubtedly had results: it contributed to growing homophobia, it created a climate in which teachers were nervous about combating it, and it made local authorities jumpy about (for example) allowing theatre shows with gay themes or characters into schools”.

Social boundaries are most effective not by punishing those that cross them, but by discouraging such attempts in the first place.

This leads us to the second argument against ASMEB, which is that such a model essentially legitimises the idea of thought crime. Whilst it might allow privileged academics a work-around of such a law, other civilians would be left with no escape. Far from being unbiased arbiters, social scientists would become complicit in the state’s subjugation of those it nominally serves.

Furthermore, the disjuncture between the freedom of academics and general public would not last indefinitely. A notable characteristic of state responses to claimed terror threats is the manner in which they self-perpetuate. Fear mongering increases community tensions, feeding radical groups; draconian laws lead to increased arrests which then ‘evidence’ that the threat is increasing, and that further powers are required; legitimate avenues of protest are shut off, increasing the chance that individuals will pursue violent means instead. In this case, if academia becomes the only legitimate space in which individuals can access material considered extremist, how long before the argument is made that academia is a ‘hot-bed of radicalism’ that must be brought under control? With the dam already breached by ASMEB, such a challenge would unlikely be successfully held back.

The final argument against regulation concerns the threat that all this is supposed to tackle. Whilst our freedoms are surrendered in the name of combating terrorism, what everyone knows to be the actual cause of terror atrocities in the UK goes entirely unchecked. This isn’t simply about a decision taken by Tony Blair five years ago either – it is ongoing, and it is the norm. Whilst the government has spent the last month calling for sanctions against Robert Mugabe, simultaneously Brown cosies up to an Italian government, led by a politician the equal of any despot in the world in terms of corruption, a government which has just instigated a policy of criminalising Roma gypsies that Hitler himself would have been proud of, and allowed to go free the perpetrators of the most gross paramilitary violence against peaceful, sleeping protesters during the 2001 Genoa G8, despite their being found guilty.

The danger is not academic research, but British foreign policy. We should be arguing for an end to actions abroad defined by ahistorical stupidity, hypocrisy, and violent self-interest, not for the right to ask someone else permission for what we can look at. For this reason, since my task as a social scientist is not only critique, but the proffer of alternatives, I suggest the following.

Since academic and politico-legal interests appear to conflict over this issue, a compromise could be approached by creating sets of conditions under which the actions of our government abroad be legitimised. Specifically, departments or politicians could apply for a license to carry out war; intervention; arms-selling bribery scandals; propping up brutal ‘friendly’ regimes; gross double standards; backsliding on aid commitment, and so on. A license could stipulate relevant security measures and judge any action by a statistical analysis comparing the potential fall in oil prices for us on the one hand, against the increased risk of terror attacks, loss of civil liberties, loss of international prestige, etc., on the other. At the same time, this licensing would need to be minimally bureaucratic and to operate at ‘arms length’ from central government to avoid undue political interference.

Such a model, which I’ll call the Foreign Office Ethics Board (FOEB), would bring an end to the arrest of academics, would protect our civil liberties, and combat terrorism in a far more effective manner.

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Ben
Apr 18, 2010 17:37

No, no, and NO!
I observed a Green Party conference debate on this last month in Finchley. I think in practice, with the exception of GM viruses, science and medicine are not subject to a Hypocratic oath. There is in practice no regulation on ethics and science should not have to support regulation when no other professions have any ethics either. Thanks.

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