The RSS supports the findings of a recent inquiry into why some government commissioned research has failed to be published - either on time or at all.
‘Missing Evidence’ was commissioned by Sense About Science, the not-for-profit organisations that champions an evidence-based approach to science and technology, after a number of stories in the media speculated that government research was being deliberately suppressed or delayed due to political pressure.
Despite £2.5m a year being spent on research for policy, the UK government does not know how many studies it has commissioned or which of them has been published.
The inquiry, carried out by former judge Sir Stephen Sedley, found that just four of the 24 government departments maintain a database tracking commissioned research: the departments for environment (Defra), international development (DfID), transport (DfT) and health (DH).
It also investigates nine case studies where there were questions over the publication of commissioned research. In many cases there appears to be a lack of clarity about what constitutes government-commissioned research and the publication rules they were subject to.
The report also found that some ‘ghost research’ still remains unrecorded and unpublished.
The problem of timely publication of research is also flagged a number of times; Ed Humpherson of the UK Statistical Authority notes that ‘the principles of prompt publication found in governing research might not be that strongly embedded’. Sir Stephen makes four key recommendations:
- A standardised central register of all externally commissioned government research
- Clarity on what constitutes externally commissioned government research
- A clear commitment to prompt publication in research contracts
- Routine publication of research the government has considered in policy formulation, with, if appropriate, reasons for rejecting it.
Sir Stephen recommends that the public register uses the best features of those currently used by Defra, DfID, DfT and the DH. Tracey Brown of Sense about Science, concurs, saying: ‘The fact that a few departments do maintain a research register, handle awkward findings and publish promptly exposes the excuses of those that don’t.’
Sedley's recommendations are very much in line with the Royal Statistical Society’s call for the government to ‘ensure that evidence gathered outside government is well accounted for’ in point 1 of its Data Manifesto. The RSS also calls for ‘a commitment from all government departments to publish their evidence in parallel with policy announcements and consultations’.