On October 31, 2023, United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) suspended the operation of its Equality Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group (EDI AG) after receiving a letter from UK Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Michelle Donelan criticizing group members’ comments on the Israel-Hamas conflict. UKRI is a non-departmental public body of the UK government that oversees research funding.
The incident occurred against the backdrop of a surprise Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 that left over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals dead and more than 200 abducted, and the subsequent Israeli military bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of early December, has reportedly killed more than 15,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions around speech across the world.
On October 28, 2023, Secretary Donelan published an open letter to UKRI chief executive Dame Ottoline Leyser, which condemned social media posts from two EDI AG members regarding the conflict between Israel and Hamas. In the letter, she expressed “disgust and outrage” that group members were “sharing some extremist views on social media.” The letter names EDI AG members Kate Sang, a professor at Heriot Watt University, and Kamna Patel, a professor at University College London. Donelan specifically noted that she was shocked by a tweet by Sang that linked to a Guardian article with the headline, ‘Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in UK,’ and described it as “disturbing,” and a re-tweet by Patel “that condemns violence on both sides but makes reference to Israel’s “genocide and apartheid.” Both professors’ X/Twitter accounts were made private following Donelan’s letter. In her letter, Donelan also asserted that “public bodies – especially scientific ones – cannot be seen to take political positions or promote extremist ideologies,” and accused Sang and Patel of violating the “Seven Principles of Public Life” (also known as the Nolan Principles) which all public office holders in the UK must uphold. She continued by requesting that Ottoline Leyser immediately close the group.
On October 31, UKRI published a response from Leyser to Donelan. Leyser’s letter confirmed the suspension of the EDI AG and announced an investigation into Donelan’s concerns, including “any breach of the terms of appointment” by group members – such as potential violations of the Nolan Principles – and considering “broader questions about UKRI’s procedures and processes for establishing advisory groups.”
Academics – including the UK’s University and College Union (UCU), which represents over 120,000 faculty and staff members, among them professors Kate Sang and Kamna Patel – criticized Donelan’s intervention and UKRI’s response. In an October 30 letter, the UCU accused Donelan “artificially conflat[ing]” the EDI AG members’ posts with support for Hamas and warned of a “worrying level of political interference in the running of a non-governmental organisation.” In a letter published on November 1, the UCU called UKRI “cowardly” and stated that unless UKRI reversed its decision, they would instruct all union members to withdraw from UKRI advisory positions.
Non-departmental public bodies like UKRI are independent and accountable to the public. Ministers like Donelan are responsible for ensuring the independence of the non-departmental public bodies in their portfolios.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension of an academic group at the request of a political official in retaliation to the exercise of freedom of speech. Academic institutions must respect scholars’ exercise of such rights and refrain from disciplinary actions that punish or deter nonviolent expressive activity. Government officials must also refrain from interfering in the functioning of higher education and research institutions. Actions by state and academic institutions that limit academics’ right to free speech have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.