By Eric Crampton 25/11/2015


There’s a strong academic freedom case against the kinds of restrictions that the New Zealand Police, and other government agencies, put on the use of data. But it’s not quite as clear-cut as it might seem.

Jarrod Gilbert is New Zealand’s leading expert in crime and gangs. Between him and  Greg Newbold, there’s not much the Canterbury sociology team don’t know about crime. Gilbert’s having trouble getting access to police data on crime that he needs for his research, though, because his research has meant he’s spent a lot of time with gangs.

This part seemed especially concerning:

The degree of control the police sought over research findings and publications was more than trifling. The research contracts demand that a draft report be provided to police. If the results are deemed to be “negative” then the police will seek to “improve its outcomes”. Both the intent and the language would have impressed George Orwell.
Researchers unprepared to yield and make changes face a clause stating the police “retain the sole right to veto any findings from release”. In other words, if an academic study said something the police didn’t like – or heaven forbid was in any way critical of the police – then the police could stop it being published.
These demands were supported by threats. The contracts state that police will “blacklist” the researchers and “any organisations connected to the project … from access to any further police resources” if they don’t abide by police wishes.

I worried about this kind of thing in Ministry of Health RFPs a while back.

But we have to balance it too against the following kind of scenario. Suppose that you’re a government agency who’s contracted with some researchers to do some work for you. Somewhere along the way, things go off the rails. The researchers’ drafts don’t look good, the statistical analysis doesn’t line up, and it’s starting to look like they’re trying to grind an axe rather than provide you with a down-the-line assessment of results.

Worse, they’ve started shopping around their working draft at conferences [legit!] and putting out press releases about their working draft [uh-oh], touting their initial results, using the Ministry’s funding as imprimatur, and calling for policy change based on it. You know they’ve missed a pile of important stuff in their analysis and that the results really aren’t sound. What do you do?

In an ideal world, academic freedom prevails. The researcher presents their results, but the Ministry puts out contextual information noting what the researchers have missed and why the results are only tentative and preliminary. But there’s a lot of risk that’s then come in. The opposition might have latched onto the preliminary work and called the government cowards for not having changed policy, or, worse, bought out by “Big Industry Interests”. Or, even worse, the preliminary wrong results conform to the Minister’s priors and the Minister won’t even let you put out a contradictory note because they’ve already tasked you with formulating policy based on it.

I’m not saying muzzle clauses are justifiable, but rather that this can be where Ministries are coming from.

It is interesting, though, that the University of Canterbury in general is happy to sign contracts for government funding that put strong muzzles on its researchers. I suppose the presumption is that government contracts are always wonderful and that the restrictions are always for the best in this the best of all possible worlds. On the other side, it doesn’t seem to matter how rock-solid the academic freedom provisions are in an external funding arrangement if industry’s involved – somebody’s going to object to it. Again, the one-sided scepticism problem..