Fact or fiction?

When the government came into power in 1997, the research
community gave thanks. The incoming Labour administration was
wedded to the idea of basing policies on evidence, rather than on
ministerial whim, and promised to spend vast sums investigating
good practice on which workable, long-term policies could be

As promised, during the past five years there has been a massive
increase in the amount of research commissioned by the government,
ranging from small-scale studies to large-scale independent
evaluations of the government’s own pilots and national programmes.
The Department of Health now spends £500m each year on
research. Armies of research staff are occupied around the clock,
looking at the success or otherwise of hundreds of initiatives,
from children’s schooling programmes to schemes to help people with
mental health problems, drug and alcohol addictions or criminal

But it seems there is a lot of truth in the saying “he who pays the
piper calls the tune”. Recently, researchers have been complaining
about what they see as unacceptable government interference into
supposedly “independent” research.

This interference starts at the beginning, from the choice of
researcher and their methods, and runs right through to the
finished report. Academics describe frequent run-ins with research
managers who operate “like nervous, dictatorial and badly informed
back seat drivers” throughout the life of the project.

Research outcomes are also contentious. Several people involved in
national evaluations have raised doubts about whether the glowing
conclusions published by the government can be justified by the
data they were involved in collecting. Others cite recommendations
and findings that have been cherry-picked by government funders,
leaving out the more unpalatable or inconvenient parts.

In other cases spin is applied to reports and recommendations so
that a balanced piece of work looking, for example, at the reasons
various children are adopted and fostered might be pitched to the
press as an analysis of why those fostered had been failed.

Researchers also allege that research findings that do not fit with
government policy are left unpublished or buried in obscurity. And
it is becoming increasingly common for people in receipt of
government research contracts to be subjected to gagging orders,
prevented from speaking at conferences and even from posting to
discussion websites.

Not all departments are guilty. Within social care research, the
Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills have come
in for sustained criticism, which they hotly dispute. Yet the DoH
has been praised for its hands-off approach. And, although many
highly respected and independent researchers say they have been on
the receiving end, others say they have not.

Raising the subject of government interference is difficult.
Contracts are highly prized and the subject of stiff competition,
so researchers are generally unwilling to criticise the government.
Still fewer want to raise their head above the parapet while doing
so. But most admit that censorship by funders is becoming worse,
many are deeply troubled by it and several have said they would
never work for a particular department again.

Bob Broad is director of the children and families research unit at
De Montfort University and outgoing chairperson of the Social Work
Research Association. In his book on the issue, he says
government-funded research is seen as highly

But he adds: “The downside of receiving government research is
being on the receiving end of a range of obvious and subtle
controls and checks. These can include formal or unstated checks on
the topic or topics being researched, the university or researcher
or supervisor employed, the methods used, the findings, the tone of
the report, the nature, ordering and extent of the recommendations
made, its published form, and finally the way the material is

So why is it happening? A lot depends on why the research is being
commissioned. “It’s not always because of a desire to increase the
sum of knowledge about a particular topic,” says one academic. “It
might be to confirm a particular policy direction. For instance, if
someone produced some research tomorrow that found that adoption
was a failure, it would be very unlikely to get published. Everyone
knows that.”

But more cynical observers do see some Machiavellian control
exerted from within Whitehall. Some suggest that “special advisers”
have far more influence than they should over “acceptable” outcomes
from research. Others feel that civil servants are panicked by
anything that does not fit current policy and are obsessed with
keeping control to avoid negative media coverage.

But on a more day-to-day basis, there are problems with the
government’s idea of evidence-based practice.

One senior academic says: “The government says evidence-based
practice is the way forward, but at the same time it does like its
focus groups and blue skies thinking, which are basically about
ignoring the evidence.

“I shall be very interested to see what comes out of the review of
the child protection system. They’re talking about introducing
multi-disciplinary teams and children’s trusts; yet all the
evidence says that it should be steady as she goes.”

Another researcher says: “This evidence-based practice is a whole
new approach for government. They don’t always know how to use
evidence in making policy – particularly what they should do if the
evidence goes against their own ideology.

“And there’s an issue about capacity building. Just because you
start throwing money at research doesn’t mean there’s the capacity
in universities to do it, or the capacity within government
departments to make the best use of it.”

The research community cannot have it all its own way, though. It
would be na‹ve for a researcher to expect to have complete
control over a project paid for by someone else – some negotiation
and tweaking to fit the purposes of the funder is inevitable.

Nor are researchers above employing underhand tactics to preserve
their own position. One observer says: “I find it especially
iniquitous that the people who decide whether you get government
funding are senior academics and researchers who are asked to give
their view on whether other people’s applications meet ‘the
required standard’. It gives academics who are already in receipt
of government research funds the opportunity to see off the

And, given that the government’s desire to control information is
becoming a problem for the research community, perhaps these senior
academics might have a more constructive role. As one observer puts
it: “It’s very difficult to raise the issue, to be critical,
because we are very dependent on government research. I’d like to
see some of our senior colleagues – whose careers are made – stand
up and be prepared to be a critical voice about what’s

Although it may rankle researchers that their original
recommendations or findings are watered down or omitted during the
big government press launch, most end up publishing their version
in academic journals, presenting their findings at conferences and
generally getting their views known.

The upshot is that nearly everyone is happy. The government gets
its “independent” research to make it look good. The research
bodies get more funding and more kudos. The researchers have their
say, somewhere.

The only group to lose out is the one to which it makes a
difference: the service users and social care staff who need
accurate, unbiased research which is used to inform policy.

1 B Broad (ed), The
Politics of Social Work Research and Evaluation, Venture Press in
association with The Social Work Research Association, 1999,
available from BASW www.basw.co.uk 0121 622 8414,

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