The letter below started out as a ‘closed’ communication sent to DSIT on 11th October but in the absence of any response, despite two reminders, and the revelation in the meantime that the Secretary of State herself sometimes has occasion to write open letters, I have decided to publish it.
Although my letter precedes the furore ignited by Michelle Donelan’s missive to UKRI raising her concerns about tweets by members of Research England’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Advisory Group, it touches on a related issue: the use and interpretation of evidence in political discourse on matters that are central to research and higher education.
Donelan’s UKRI letter put a very particular spin on a small number of words in a few tweets and proceeded to call for the disbandment of an EDI committee that has yet to meet. It seems to me that greater diligence was needed to ascertain whether or not the individuals involved are actually biased in a way that would compromise their role as advisors on EDI before any challenge was made regarding their participation in the committee. It would also have been more rigorous of the Secretary of State to have provided a rationale for her call to disband the committee completely.
The issues involved here (attitudes to the Israeli-Hamas conflict) and in my letter (a request for clarification of claims made by Michelle Donelan with regard to questions of sex and gender) are complex and important. They deserve serious attention. That means that any and all discussions should pay particular attention to the totality of evidence, rather than being selective with the facts.
Of course, the difference between scholarly and political discourse is very often located in the way that facts are used. The best scholarship will embrace all relevant information, including that which might contradict an argument that is being advanced. By contrast, it is in the nature of the rough and tumble of politics for people to play a faster, looser game.
In reality, the differences are not always so marked. We all – scholars and politicians alike – cling to our predilections and worldviews. Our minds are not changed so easily. But none of us has a monopoly on the whole truth, which is why it is so important to try to be open-minded and curious about what people we disagree with are really thinking.
I still hope therefore to get an answer to my letter and a clearer insight into the mind of the Secretary of State. On the face of it, she and I see the facts differently and have different views on the importance of work to promote equality, diversity and inclusion within our universities and research institutions. But I am curious to know if there is scope to explore what commonalities there might be between our perspectives.
11 October 2023
Dear Secretary of State
I write in a personal capacity as a scientist who has spent their entire professional life working in academia and been closely involved in addressing a range of issues related to research culture. These include the impact of incentive structures, and efforts to create a more diverse, inclusive, and productive academy. As I’m sure you are aware, these are knotty subjects.
I was pleased to read of your commitment to facts and evidence in your speech to the Conservative Party Conference last week, but troubled by some of the vaguer claims made about the ‘slow creep of wokeism’. I realise party conferences are occasions for rallying the troops, but you touched on complex issues that require serious deliberation, not least because of the impact they can have on the people most affected by them.
Therefore, there are two points in your speech on which I would be grateful for a clarification of the facts.
First, you said that Scotland’s Chief Statistician had issued guidance to the effect that “data on sex can only be collected in exceptional circumstances”. I have had a look at the guidance document but did not get a sense that that was his intention. Please could you or someone in your team point me to the sections where your claim is substantiated?
Second, you said that scientists are being told “by university bureaucrats that they cannot ask legitimate research questions about biological sex”. Could you please list the instances where this has happened that you had in mind? If there are very many, perhaps just mention four or five that you consider the most disturbing. I’m bound to say I have not come across such direct interference in my own work in science or in the EDI space. I am fully aware that questions of sex and gender are discussed, often in an uninformed and ill-tempered manner in the media and social media, but in my experience universities grapple very carefully with these questions.
There is of course a rapidly evolving discourse around sex and gender, and one that is important for our society. That is why it is crucial for us to create space for constructive dialogue. Perhaps this is your aim with the investigation to be led by Prof Alice Sullivan? I hope that will provide an opportunity for an informed discussion that is broad enough to embrace not just academic and policy research, but the women and LGBT+ communities closest to these matters.
Professor Stephen Curry