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Artillery Row

EDI contra science

The misuse of “ethics” in academic research

In January I was approached by members of the UK Athlete’s Commission. They asked if I could survey elite athletes on their views on trans participation in athletics. As World Athletics was planning to announce a new policy on trans inclusion, they felt it was vital that the voices of athletes were heard. UK Athletics has refused to survey either its grassroots membership or its elite athletes on the question. The athletes wanted my help to conduct a survey of their own.

I submitted a proposal for ethical review at Kings College London which stated that the aim of the research was “to find the views of athletes and volunteers on the question of when males should be allowed to compete in the female category in athletics”. The ethics committee rejected the proposal, on the grounds that using the terms “male” and “female” in this sentence constituted “misgendering”.

The ethics review form asked me to summarise my project’s aims in easily understandable language. So their objection to the terms male and female was surprising. 

The ethics review was in effect preventing me from using the concept of sex at all

This text was not even part of the planned survey. The ethics committee raised no objections to the proposed survey questions. Nevertheless, I was told that I must seek input from the Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team on the “wording used in the survey” and the “presentation of the research”.

It is important scientifically that survey questions are clear. It is impossible to write a clear question on trans inclusion in sports without using the words “male” and “female”. After all, the concept of “woman” is apparently so difficult that it has most of the Labour frontbench entirely baffled. By preventing me from using the word “male”, the ethics review was in effect preventing me from using the concept of sex at all.

Asking our EDI team for assistance seems unlikely to improve the quality of the research. Our EDI team is part of the university’s human resources function and has no particular research expertise. Until recently, it was teaching in a course aimed at senior managers that sex was a spectrum from male to female with “intersex” somewhere in between.

The Office of National Statistics has learned the hard way that asking gender-identity activists to design your surveys can lead to scientifically unsound results. The 2021 Census was the first census to ask about trans identities but, after consultation with activist groups, selected the confusing wording, “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth? An analysis of anomalies in responses to this question suggests that a significant number of respondents may have simply failed to understand the question, perhaps due to having English as a second language, a lack of familiarity with gender-identity theory, or both, and simply guessed “No”. As a result, despite the expense of a census, we still don’t have an accurate figure for the proportion of the population who are trans.

Activist interference in what can be researched erodes the integrity of science. Many people will be familiar with the idea of publication-bias: it is much easier to publish positive results than it is to publish negative results. Political policing of research introduces a new ethical-review bias. If the ethics team at my university limits what questions can be asked about gender-identity, this introduces a bias into all the work conducted on gender at the university.

This doesn’t just affect social science, it affects medicine. Medics are coming under increasing pressure to monitor “gender” rather than sex in their research, despite the obvious medical importance of sex. There have been a number of cases reported of ethics committees seeking to prevent data collection on sex. This is particularly concerning in the case of gender medicine. The Cass Review has established an urgent need for rigorous work on puberty blockers. It would be horrifying for ethics committees to bias such vital work.

Academics in today’s universities are under constant surveillance by EDI zealots

In addition to navigating ethics reviews, academics also need to obtain grant funding, submit papers for peer review and get invitations to speak at seminars and conferences. Every stage of this process provides an opportunity for activist interference. For example, Cathy Devine’s research on the views of female Olympians on trans participation in athletics is a rare example of academic work presenting the views of women athletes. It was rejected by one journal, with one review saying that it is transphobic to talk about biological sex and another opining that her binary understanding of sex was exclusive to “white liberal feminism” and part of the neo-colonialism of the global south. She has also been targeted by activists who sought, unsuccessfully, to have her grant funding withdrawn.

Academics in today’s universities are under constant surveillance by EDI zealots. The National Institute for Health Research obliged institutions to sign up to an EDI charter that required them not to collect diversity monitoring data by sex. The social science funder ESRC is committed to “embedding EDI principles, commitments and ambitions in all we do”. The Quality Assurance Association for Higher Education (QAA) even states, “Values of EDI should permeate the [mathematics] curriculum and every aspect of the [mathematics] learning experience. My own institution requires completion of an EDI statement as part of the promotion process. I have been assured this is not intended to appear chilling.

If gender research is politically biassed by its ethical review process, one might ask whether this also applies to research in other areas? There is an emerging trend to require “Education for Sustainable Development” across all university subjects. Even the advocates of this approach admit some will abuse it for indoctrination. Not only does this raise the ghastly prospect of music students forced to compose songs themed around the UN Sustainable Development goals, it provides an open goal for climate-change deniers who wish to raise doubts about the impartiality of university research.

University leaders need to act. If they continue to allow activists to interfere with what we teach and what we research, it will undermine the credibility of science.

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