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Follow the money

William Wallace says researchers must respond to increasing attention on who is funding political research

Academic researchers across the sciences are always mindful of demonstrating ‘impact’ in their submissions to the next Research Excellence Framework. They have therefore become accustomed to contributing to think tank publications, advising the UK government and opposition parties on policy issues, and working with international organisations and—on occasion—foreign governments. But dependence on foreign funding, whether from government sources or from contentious multinational companies, can raise reputational difficulties, or worse.

Confucius Institutes in UK universities are already under deep suspicion, as is research collaboration with Chinese companies or with universities linked to the Chinese state (as all in China effectively must be). An amendment to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill now moving through the Lords, which would require regulators “to consider whether a registered higher education institution is overly reliant on overseas funding from a single country of origin”, aims to highlight undue dependence on Chinese student fees, as well as on research funding.

Foreign interference

The government has also strengthened the language on “foreign interference”, “obtaining benefits from a foreign intelligence service” and “requirements to register foreign activity arrangements” in the National Security bill.

The clauses added to this bill would probably have caught me as an international relations researcher at Chatham House in the 1980s, when I visited Beijing as a guest of the People’s Liberation Army Institute of International Affairs and was the British secretary of the UK-USSR Round Table, holding conferences in Moscow and London (with the support of the UK government), with Russians close to the Politburo. As it was, the Sunday Times attacked Chatham House on several occasions for getting too close to the Soviet elite, even alleging there was a Chatham House spy.

Scholars researching political, social, economic or historical topics in non-democratic countries are already painfully aware of the sensitivities of what they do. These potential changes in UK law could make their tasks harder.

Donation dangers

In 2011, the then director of the London School of Economics, Howard Davies, resigned over the acceptance of a series of donations from the Gaddafi family in Libya, after several years of a relationship developed on the initiative of a US-based consultancy. Several universities and institutes have benefited from donations from Gulf states, braving concerns over human rights and implicit limits on critical studies. But it’s not just funds from authoritarian states that raise difficulties for researchers. The Henry Jackson Society, a London-based ‘pro-democracy’ organisation labelled as neo-conservative by its critics, has been attacked for accepting funding from the Japanese Embassy for research on China.

Probably the largest flow of funding into the UK from abroad, however, comes from American donors, foundations and companies—private funding, but often with strong political undertones. Recent attention has focused on a number of right-wing think tanks with a strongly free-market agenda. The New York Times suggested that the UK was becoming ‘a libertarian laboratory’ under Prime Minister Liz Truss, noting her recruitment of advisers from the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute and similar bodies. Open Democracy has rated these, together with the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Civitas, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Legatum Institute and Policy Exchange as unacceptably opaque in their funding. What little is known about their sources of funds includes support from oil, tobacco and food multinationals, and the foundations of libertarian American billionaires.

Russia report

Some advisory bodies to government are actively concerned about covert foreign funding and other efforts to influence UK policymaking. The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament Russia report included strong language about the laundering of Russian money through London—some of it reaching politically influential bodies, although details were redacted from its published version.

The Boardman Review of the fallout from the Greensill scandal, the Review into the Development of Supply Chain Finance in Government, recommended that “the government should consult on whether think tanks, research institutes and lobbying academics should be required to disclose their sources of funding, and whether there are circumstances when they ought to be required to register as consultant lobbyists”. Ministers have not yet responded to this proposal.

US dollars

American funding of policy-related research within the UK has not, until recently, been considered a sensitive issue. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations were major supporters of British research institutes during the Cold War; US foundations were reportedly used as conduits for covert government funding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and other anti-communist bodies. But the emergence of an influential group of right-wing think tanks in Washington, which have cultivated links with similar bodies in London, has recently raised public concerns.

Careful and non-partisan researchers in the UK academic community would be wise to check on the funding of the bodies that approach them for contributions and decline to work with those that do not provide adequate information. As domestic politics has become polarised, and the international climate more hostile, they will have to navigate a narrow path between the pursuit of impact, the dangers of media attack, and the threat of unwitting co-option by foreign actors—whether states, companies or foundations with particular agendas.

William Wallace (Lord Wallace of Saltaire) is Liberal Democrat spokesman on the Cabinet Office in the Lords. He was director of research at Chatham House for 12 years, then taught international relations at Oxford and the London School of Economics.