U.K. government building

The U.K. Department of Energy & Climate Change

Wayland Smith/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

U.K. government isn’t tracking policy-related research

Government agencies in the United Kingdom do a poor job of keeping tabs on research they fund to set policies, according to a report released today by Sense About Science, a London-based group that advocates for the use of scientific evidence in policymaking. The report also described examples of delays in releasing the results of what it called “politically awkward” studies.

“I am very concerned by the evidence from this enquiry,” Anne Glover, of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom and a former science adviser to the European Commission, said in a statement.

The analysis was done by Stephen Sedley, a retired judge in the United Kingdom and the European Court of Human Rights who is a trustee for the advocacy group. It focuses on research with immediate relevance to public policy, rather than basic scientific research. 

Sedley queried 24 government agencies to find out how they publish and archive research that they commission. Only four departments maintained a database of their research, Sedley discovered. Eleven could not create an inventory of what they had supported, mostly because no central records exist (including the Department of Energy & Climate Change, shown above).

Agency confusion over when research reports should be published has resulted in what the group calls “ghost research” that is “unsearchable in the national archives and exists only in the memories of officials.” Sedley recommended that the government create a central public database of all the research it funds, and that agencies commit to prompt publication of findings. The latter is based on his finding that studies of sensitive issues, such as government recommendations on levels of alcohol and sugar consumption, were delayed, although he could not estimate how often that has occurred. The report also recommended that results remain accessible to researchers and the general public.

“If government wants people to trust the research it commissions, and if it wants to go on attracting top class researchers to its contracts, then it needs to behave accordingly,” Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science, said in a statement. “Departments should not be losing valuable research or subjecting it to swings in the political mood.”