The abuse of research

The funding and political agendas of thinktanks mean their reports need to be treated with care

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.

This is further undermined by dealing collectively with “Muslim attitudes” without any recognition of diversity among British Muslims. This is not only unhelpful analytically, but also runs the risk of replicating stereotypes. The report implies that multiculturalism is responsible for exacerbating differences between Muslims and the rest of the population without any evidence to justify these claims. 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.

This is not the first time Britons have identified a “suspect community” in their midst. From the 1970s, the Irish were subject to screening, profiling, summary arrest, deportation and exclusion. Surely there are lessons to be drawn from that. The alienation of members of a community from the mainstream is not of course a process driven solely by some inherent characteristic of that community; it is also a product of their experience of society and the way they are represented.

Sound research is essential for developing an intelligent response to problems such as the radicalisation of some Muslims. However, it is essential the research is undertaken by scholars – including in thinktanks – who are not interpreting data to promote a preconceived political agenda. And as citizens, we have a responsibility to ensure our research does not exacerbate divisions or contribute to the demonisation of members of our population.

· 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.

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