Thursday, February 15, 2007

Independent Research

Just noticed an interesting article on Policy Exchange which appeared in the Guardian a couple of days ago. Before linking to this article, here are the authors credentials:
Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning are director and deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Contemporary Political Violence at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Given that the article relates to a specific Policy Exchange report concerning their own area of study, it seems highly unlikely that these authors are coming at P.E. from the same direction that some of us on the interwebs have been recently.

The article is called The Abuse of Research
As political parties set out their stalls of new ideas in preparation for a general election, the increasing influence of privately funded research on political discussion will demand closer scrutiny. Private thinktanks are increasingly shaping national debates in the media, something made possible through the private funds required for high-profile launches, websites and email campaigns.

A striking example of this symbiotic relationship is Policy Exchange's report Living Apart Together, on Muslim social attitudes, which is officially launched today. It was released to the press two weeks ago to provide research cover for David Cameron's speech attacking multiculturalism and prominent Muslim organisations. The report included claims that a significant minority of Muslims were "living apart" from British society, claims that were widely reported in the media and appeared to legitimise Conservative party rhetoric.

Yet few reports made clear that Policy Exchange has an explicit political agenda. Michael Gove, the Conservative MP and author of the book Celsius 7/7 - How the West's Policy of Appeasement Has Provoked Fundamentalist Terror and What Has to Be Done Now, is a founding chairman of Policy Exchange. And he has made it clear that thinktanks are crucial for the next general election campaign, stating that "a precursor to electoral victory is victory in the battle of ideas and the battle for the agenda".

The politicisation of research can lead to serious distortions in debates on policy issues. Debates about multiculturalism, security and British Muslims are bound to have a central place in the next election.

A closer scrutiny, however, suggests the report cannot be regarded as a reliable guide to formulating policy. Its findings are at odds with much other research, which would not be a problem if the writers engaged with the body of scholarship in this field. But without such an engagement, their validity remains dubious.
Note also the opinion of the academics of the actual result of this "independent" report:
Reports such as Living Apart Together in fact contribute to problems of "living together" by constructing a homogeneous category of British Muslims on the basis of certain alleged differences between "them" and other Britons. [my emphasis]
So, according to these academics working in this field, the Policy Exchange report, released to the press on the day Cameron made a keynote speech attacking multiculturalism, was counter-productive and of dubious validity. But did appear to legitimise Conservative Party rhetoric.

Who would have thought it?

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