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News and Comment

Missing Evidence

2 June 2016

Inquiry into delayed publication of government-commissioned research

Last year Sense about Science asked Sir Stephen Sedley, a former judge in the Court of Appeal and a new trustee of Sense about Science, to undertake an inquiry into the scale and significance of non-publication of government-commissioned research. The report from that inquiry, Missing Evidence, is published today and you can download it here.

Sir Stephen found out that:

  • The UK government spends around £2.5 billion a year on research for policy, but does not know how many studies it has commissioned or which of them have been published.
  • Only 4 out of 24 government departments maintain a database of research they have commissioned.
  • Government officials are forced to use Google to track down their department’s research.

The inquiry was initiated following a spate of media stories about government research being suppressed or delayed, allegedly because the findings were politically awkward. A review of cases submitted to the inquiry reveals that publication of research has been manipulated to fit with political concerns, but poor records conceal the extent of this behaviour.

Sir Stephen’s report finds a lack of clarity about what constitutes government-commissioned research and what is subject to publication rules. Rules which do require prompt publication of government-commissioned research are weak and open to political opportunism. Millions of pounds of research is lost from government records. Ghost research is being created: paid for but, unrecorded and unpublished, it becomes unfindable in the national archives and exists only in the memories of officials.

The inquiry uncovered significant differences in the way departments report and record research; 11 government departments were unable to provide a list of research they have commissioned; of those, seven said that they didn’t hold that information centrally and it would be too costly to gather. (Table 1 on page 14 of the report sets out more details.) Civil servants who gave evidence to the inquiry reported that departments spend significant time trying to find past studies that they commissioned and paid for.

Some government departments however do maintain a research register. And the sky hasn’t fallen in at those departments. They continue to commission research with the advantage of knowing whether it has been published and where it is. Sir Stephen recommends that government sets up one central, publicly accessible register for all government-commissioned research. We will respond to his recommendation by pressing firmly and publicly for it.

The Rt Hon Sir Stephen Sedley said, “The request to report on delay in the publication of external research commissioned by government departments looked straightforward enough. Every department must know what research it had commissioned and what had happened to it. My task would be to pick out any recent cases where publication had been delayed or deferred by government, and to examine the reasons why.

"The discovery that many departments of state either do not possess or cannot easily provide this basic information has given my work and this report a new and unexpected dimension. I hope that the resulting recommendations will do something to move the UK towards a more open mode of government and a better informed civil and political society.”

Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science, said, “If government wants people to trust the research it commissions, and if it wants to go on attracting top class researchers to its contracts, then it needs to behave accordingly. Departments should not be losing valuable research or subjecting it to swings in the political mood. The fact that a few departments do maintain a research register, handle awkward findings and publish promptly exposes the excuses of those that don’t. Sir Stephen has revealed that we don’t know what has become of millions of pounds worth of government-commissioned research because government itself doesn’t know whether it was published, or where it all is now.” 

We have gathered links to media coverage, and other commentary, in our Storify.


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