In March, 681 behavioural scientists wrote an open letter to the government questioning the validity of the “science” from which ministers were concluding it was too early to enter lockdown. Since then, our failure to go into lockdown early enough has become widely accepted as a cause of tens of thousands of deaths.
Governments have long presented political decisions as “following the science”. Think tanks have proliferated since the 1950s yet were brought in house with the infamous quangos of New Labour as “evidence-based policymaking” became the word of the day. A handy alternative to academic research, such organisations were rarely independent but rather existed to tell the government what it wanted to hear. When they didn’t, the government would simply disavow them, hence Michael Gove announcing that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, or at least the experts who disagreed with the Leave camp on the potential impacts of Brexit.
Today, the government is engaged in what George Monbiot calls “intellectual landscaping”, “an infrastructure of persuasion” built “to supplant civic power with the power of money”. Think tanks like Policy Exchange, whose first chairman was Michael Gove MP, and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which has groomed Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, have such close ties with Conservative politicians that they virtually sit at the heart of government – Policy Exchange’s proposals for gutting the planning system have recently been adopted by the Conservatives more or less in full.
Yet perhaps the finest example of intellectual landscaping is the counter-extremism industry that sprang up in the wake of the war on terror and has flourished under the Prevent Strategy. The Quilliam Foundation, set up in 2008 as “the world’s first counter-extremism organisation”, received in excess of £1.2 million from the Home Office under the Blair and coalition governments and has since taken funding from US organisations that have been accused of fuelling anti-Muslim hatred. The foundation has been quick to denounce academic research that challenges government policy on countering extremism: after an academic study on the experience of Muslims at British universities, the largest of its kind, was published in July of this year, Quilliam’s policy director, David Toube, took to Twitter to rebut the report’s finding that “Prevent reinforces negative views of Islam and Muslims”, using the foundation’s pseudo-academic ”Journal” as evidence.
The use of “extremist” in this context makes a lot more sense when you realise how it’s a result of over a decade of poorly run, largely unaccountable and often unknown organisations that have formulated the counter-extremism narratives that underline the Prevent strategy https://t.co/wnHomUJALG
Set up under New Labour, Quilliam has led the way for many similarly pseudoscientific, similarly well-funded organisations. The Home Office recently spent over £1.7 million on a Commission for Countering Extremism, whose role is to “advise the government on new policies to deal with extremism, including the need for any new powers”. The £140,000 that lead commissioner Sara Khan is reported to earn has been money well spent by the government, as Khan’s commission has consistently flown in the face of academic research, which is overwhelmingly critical of counter-extremism, instead defiantly trumpeting the need for more of it. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” wrote the American author Upton Sinclair, “when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Today, the decisions that the government hides behind “the science” are increasingly existential. Whether we should enter a second lockdown, or follow Sweden and stay open, is a monumental question; hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance. Whichever course the government chooses, one thing is clear: the government will use Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Valance to retroactively justify their decisions. But science does not work like that: you cannot simply cherry-pick the scientists who happen to support your readymade conclusions; you must synthesise information to arrive at an informed decision. Whether in response to a pandemic or to dubious counter-extremism, universities need to reassert themselves as sources of rigorous and independent research. SOAS is pioneering this with its Influencing the Corridors of Power Project (SOAS ICOP), which helps academics to write policy briefings that maintain the ethical and peer-review standards that are the hallmark of academia.
We currently face mortal threats to our health and environment. Without independent expertise informing our defence, many more people will not survive them.
Dr Rob Faure Walker is an academic developing strategies for academia to support policymaking for SOAS ICOP. He will soon be expanding this work to UCL. He also runs the Prevent Digest website and newsletter, and is writing a book on the emergence of “extremism” for Bloomsbury.