Michelle Donelan MP, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, has joined Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, Michael Gove, the Communities Secretary, Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, and other members of the Government in a concerted attempt to silence calls for justice in Palestine. In an open letter to the head of UK Research and Innovation, Donelan condemned the appointment of two academics to the UKRI’s newly formed equality, diversity and inclusion expert advisory group, mischaracterising them as extremists for criticising Israel in their social media posts; and calling the advisory group a pointless bureaucratic innovation which should be disbanded.

Donelan’s manifestly political interference in an arm’s length institution has provoked a massive backlash from the academic community. A petition protesting her action. reproduced below, almost immediately secured more than 1200 signatures. You can add your name by going to the original here.

Open letter to UKRI

Link to add your signature

We, the undersigned, are deeply concerned about the current wave of repression and attempts at censorship led by the government against lawful expressions of solidarity with Palestinians and criticisms of the Israeli military’s heavy bombardment of the Gaza Strip since 7 October.

On the 28th of October, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Michelle Donelan MP shared a letter on social media addressed to the CEO of UKRI. The letter expresses “disgust and outrage” at UKRI’s appointment of two named academics to an equality, diversity, and inclusion expert advisory group on the basis of their social media posts expressing lawful criticisms of the UK and Israeli governments, which the Secretary of State mischaracterises as “extremist.”

The UK Research and Innovation is an independent public body that funds and directs academic research in the UK. It receives its funds from the UK government’s Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, but is run by an independent board and executive committee.

The Secretary of State claims that she was shocked to see tweets by one member of the advisory group “that condemns violence on both sides but makes reference to Israel’s ‘genocide and apartheid’”. We wish to highlight that many internationally respected human rights experts, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Jerusalem-based B’Tselem and the past four out of five UN Special Rapporteurs on the state of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, have concluded that Israel is practising apartheid against the Palestinian people. Even if this were not the case, the academic would still have the right to express that opinion. Meanwhile, on 15 October 2023, over 800 scholars and practitioners of international law, conflict studies and genocide studies signed a public statement warning of the possibility of genocide being perpetrated by Israeli forces against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. 

Furthermore, we are deeply alarmed that the Secretary of State misrepresents a comment made by another member of the advisory panel, which expressed concern about an article, labelling it as “support” for Hamas.

We categorically refute the suggestion that expressions of support for Palestinian civilians and their right to engage in organised political resistance can be equated with support for Hamas and believe that such a conflation serves to undermine popular and growing opposition to Israel’s bombardment and policies of siege against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Not only are the Secretary of State’s comments an attack on individual freedom of expression and academic freedom, but we believe they also constitute unacceptable political interference in the decision-making and governance of UKRI, which cannot be allowed to pass. Targeting one of the most authoritative research bodies in the country has surely been designed to produce a chilling effect across the whole academic community at the cost of intellectual and professional integrity.

Finally, we are disturbed that the Secretary of State is also pressuring UKRI to shut down the newly-formed expert advisory panel, which she characterises as going above the legal requirements of the Equality Act 2010 and constituting an “added burden.” We consider equality, inclusion and diversity to be essential criteria for research quality assurance and professional equity. The “due diligence” that the Minister complains was not carried out in the wake of 7th October appears to amount to little more than political cleansing. Downplaying the work of UKRI’s expert advisory group as an “an added burden and bureaucracy” undermines the principles which universities across the sector champion, and fundamentally threatens the function of the Equality Act 2010. It is incredibly concerning that the Secretary of State is intervening in the activities of UKRI and calling for the disbanding of a group whose main purpose is to uphold the principle and law of equality in scientific research – that is, to prevent discrimination within academic research. We know that funding for research in the UK falls short of equality, inclusion and diversity obligations. Funding allocation by UKRI disproportionately favours male researchers, white researchers, and non-disabled researchers. Given these outstanding equalities shortcomings, it is deeply troubling that Michelle Donelan has so flippantly recommended dissolving this advisory group. This is from a government which has consistently and opportunistically chosen to reject the knowledge produced by academic experts on issues such as social, historical and racial inequalities and injustices, as well as other pressing issues of the day, such as climate change and epidemiology.

We are concerned that this intervention marks an attempt to create a climate of fear to deter academics from expressing opposition to grave human rights violations by Israel. This undermines academic freedom and the independence of UKRI. It also erodes the principles of equality, diversity, and inclusion in UK HE. As the Black Members’ Standing Committee of UCU has noted, this is taking place in a context of structural criminalisation and racialisation. We would expect that UKRI would take a firm and authoritative position to defend and champion the work of the advisory group on diversity, equality, and inclusion and the rights of its members to academic freedom. If UKRI does not defend the advisory group from this unilateral state repression, this will send a devastating message to all academics, researchers, and students in the sector.

For these reasons, we call on UKRI to make a resolute and principled response to Michelle Donelan’s statement, by rejecting her request to disband the expert advisory board on diversity, equality and inclusion and asserting UKRI’s independence from government interference. We call on UKRI and the whole British academic community to take a stand against the UK government’s attack on academic freedom and equality, and to all forms of intimidation aimed at punishing individuals for showing solidarity with Palestinians.