A new report has flagged concerns over government powers to prevent unfavourable research from going public.
The prevalence of clauses allowing governments to restrict publication of research may be undermining the independence of research, the analysis warns.
The report found that one or more type of “control clauses” – measures giving government power to terminate a contract without cause or prevent research being published – were overwhelmingly present in contracts with external researchers.
While there was some evidence that researchers negotiated some contract terms, often relating to publication and dissemination, one or more forms of other control clauses were present in contracts, meaning government had control of the research.
The prevalence of these clauses has “troubling” implications for government accountability, academic freedom and evidence-informed policymaking say the researchers from the University of Technology Sydney, who surveyed contracts under the government’s $180 billion health spend.
Clauses ‘promote secrecy’
The research raises new concerns about the integrity of outsourced research, warning that this research can “promote secrecy” and undermine transparency by giving government “unfettered discretion” to prevent information from being published.
Unfavourable research findings, such as those that, for example, reveal a lack of proper management or cast doubt on government actions could be hidden from the public if the government decides to pull the plug on the contract or prevent publication, says Nola Ries, associate professor at the Faculty of Law, UTS and co-author of the paper.
“That’s worrying in the sense that the government exercises ultimate control over the purse strings,” she tells Government News.
Government pledges of transparency and evidence-based policy making are undermined by such clauses, according to Associate Professor Ries, as government is “hindering” is own ability to have the best evidence available.
“The government has signed onto things like open government initiatives and talks about the need to improve transparency and make more data available … but what we see is happening in practice is at odds with claims around government transparency,” she told Government News.
Academic research is also undermined by the prevalence of these clauses, which could influence the nature of the research, Associate Professor Ries warns.
“When the power is weighted in favour of the funder then it creates a relationship where the researcher is in a position where they may be less critical,” she says.
Given the current shortage of research funding, the prevalence of these contract terms is particularly troubling as it could potentially dissuade researchers from negotiating out of these terms, she adds.
Call for public register
The report calls for the implementation of a public register of research findings, and for the government to commit to openness and transparency in all research contracts.
A public register of outsourced government research, much like one that has been recommended in the UK, should be implemented by government to advance transparency, the paper argues.
Such a register would not be resource-intensive or burdensome, Associate Professor Ries argues, given that the government already has a register of tenders at tenders.gov.au.
“We argue in the paper that this kind of proposal is not radical and it is not necessarily resource intensive because governments already have a number of public websites where the public can look at tenders. There could be an associated website,” she says.
More research is needed to look at the extent that these clauses are used by government, Associate Professor Ries says.
Comment below to have your say on this story.
If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sign up to the Government News newsletter.