Security and intelligence incursions in academic research: a threat to all of social science

Security and intelligence incursions in academic research: a threat to all of social science

Narzanin Massoumi, David Miller and Tom Mills

The Director of CREST was asked to respond to this article. He has replied that, the accusations made about CREST within this article are subject to review by publishers and, to respect the integrity of those processes, CREST will provide a response once they have concluded.

In the US in the late 1960s, state incursions into academia, which had occurred in the context of the Cold War, and in the wake of McCarthyism, faced a concerted push back from academics, students and social movements. The campaign to keep the CIA off campus, which lasted for over a decade, highlighted the relationships the agency had developed with academics via consultancies, scholars-in residence programmes and research contracts. In response to the growing criticisms of its activities, the CIA developed covert relationships, requiring that academics in receipt of funds should not publicly acknowledge their relationship with the agency. Scholars such as Samuel Huntington then produced articles in academic journals such as International Security (as late as 1985), which unbeknown to readers were connected to CIA funding.

Such deceptions are widely regarded as unethical, but it is an open question how extensive they now are. In this article, we examine a contemporary case of state incursion into academia: the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), based at the University of Lancaster, which is funded by the UK intelligence agencies.  This, we argue, raises a number of serious issues around transparency, conflicts of interest and research ethics. Since secrecy legislation is invoked as a condition of the funding, and the intelligence agencies play some role in approving publication, there is an issue in terms of assessing the evidence base being undermined. But there is also a danger of scholars endorsing, legitimating or enhancing coercive and/or deceptive governmental activities. We argue that this would undermine the public responsibilities of scientists and academics since coercion removes choice and volition, while deception manipulates the information environment in which citizens make political judgements.

The research agenda of the secret state
CREST was set up following a public call in 2015 for proposals from the Economic and Social Research Council for a research hub aimed at ‘understanding, countering and mitigating security threats’. Up to £5 million was offered to the successful proposal, but unusually, the money came not from ESRC funds but directly from the ‘UK security and intelligence agencies’.

Prior to the public call, the ESRC had run an invite only meeting in central London in January 2015 to consult on the initiative – at which one of the present authors (DM) was present [assertions of fact in this article are based on first hand observation at the meeting, discussions with ESRC personnel and others present, and a copy of the attendance list]. One outcome of that meeting was that the initial plans to have the intelligence agencies contract directly with the winning university were shelved, with the ESRC instead formally contracted with the winning team. An early indication at the meeting of the ethically murky waters in which the new initiative was to swim was the attendance list. While giving the institutional affiliations of all the academics present, it also listed several people for whom no affiliations were given, and in some cases only a first name and initial of the surname were given. After a number of queries, it was confirmed by government officials present that the attendees without affiliations (or surnames) were serving intelligence operatives. Among the suggestions given at the meeting for embedding intelligence personnel in the initiative, was the secondment of operatives into universities, which one of the intelligence personnel present suggested might be covert. It is the fact that these agencies are engaged in covert action, and operate under a veil of secrecy, that makes it difficult to ascertain whether or not such arrangements have come to pass.

Conflict of Interest
A key issue that can be raised about the receipt of funding from intelligence agencies is the extent to which this is a conflict of interest. In medical and related research this is an issue that is well recognised if unevenly handled.  It is widely accepted, for example, that research ‘financed by the tobacco industry [which] funds research related to tobacco… fosters an inherent conflict of interest’.  The same goes for other industry interests, such as, for example, the Sugar industry.  This is not just an abstract problem as the evidence base shows, for example, that industry funded studies are more likely to ‘underestimate the adverse health effects’ of industry products.

There has been less debate in the literature on the problem of conflict of interest in relation to funding by the state and in particular by the counterterrorism apparatus, including the intelligence agencies. However, the issues in our view are substantially the same. A competing interest is, according to one definition, ‘anything that interferes with, or could reasonably be perceived as interfering with, the full and objective presentation, peer review, editorial decision-making, or publication of research or non-research articles submitted to a journal. Competing interests can be financial or nonfinancial, professional, or personal. Competing interests can arise in relationship to an organisation or another person.’ In the case of the UK intelligence agencies, the main source of CREST funding, these are not disinterested bodies, but rather organisations that operate according to a particular set of geopolitical goals with an interest in how security threats are defined and understood. The conflict of interest is therefore very clear. Whilst it might be objected that the role of the ESRC in administering the contract diminishes such a conflict, evidence from the contractual agreement suggests that the agencies may retain a very strong practical role in the research process.

Secrecy and research
CREST announced its first set of successfully commissioned projects in May 2016. The ‘letter of award’ set out the terms and conditions of the award, including details of publishing rules and relationship with the research sponsor. It also stated that researchers may be required to sign the Official Secrets Act, referring to the main recipient of the award as ‘the hub’.

The Hub is expected to cooperate with UK Security and Intelligence Agencies in making appropriate security arrangements for any work involving classified information. In the event that classified information is involved in any work done by the Hub, the Hub understands and acknowledges that special arrangements will be agreed directly with the UK Security and Intelligence Agency concerned to ensure that the information is properly safeguarded. If the work of the Hub, or any of the Academic Partners, requires them to have access to sensitive or confidential information, core staff may be required to sign the Official Secrets Act and a confidentiality agreement, and may be asked to apply for security clearance.

In addition, the letter states that all CREST funded publications are subject to review by the Security and Intelligence Agencies’ nominated contact ‘prior to their submission for publication’. Academics are asked to ‘make amendments’ if it is decided they breach the Official Secrets Act, any confidentiality agreement, or are deemed to have a ‘detrimental impact to national security’. Academics, it stated, ‘will not proceed with the publication unless and until Agencies’ nominated point of contact confirms that its concerns have been addressed’. This process seems quite likely to mean that CREST sponsored research publications will have key omissions in data, analysis or argumentation.

Disclosure in practice
It could be argued that these risks can be mitigated by full disclosure of any such issues in CREST related publication. To evaluate this perspective we examined all CREST outputs listed as published in journals from its foundation in 2015 until late 2018, as claimed and listed in its September 2018 Catalogue. We looked for evidence of disclosure of the ultimate main funding source, conflict of interest declarations, author contribution disclosures and whether the journal in question was a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics, which provides guidelines on such disclosures. Of the 31 articles, we were able to access 27. None of them declared even a potential conflict of interest, with only a handful (five) giving any statement at all. In every case this was that there was variously no ‘potential’, ‘competing’ or actual conflict of interest. In biographical affiliations, despite the articles all being promoted by CREST as related to their activities, only seven mentioned CREST. To be fair, twelve of the papers noted a source of funding. However, eleven specified that the funder was the ESRC, which is less than a full disclosure. None mentioned that the funding came from the security and intelligence agencies in the conflict of interest disclosure, though two articles mention the source of funding in biographical notes. Though five of the articles mentioned the role of the various authors in the preparation of the manuscript, the other 22 did not and none of the 27 mentioned the role that the intelligence agencies reportedly play in the vetting of manuscripts prior to publication.

Scholarly standards
This pattern of omission and obfuscation is extremely concerning. It is contrary to the polices of the Committee of Publication Ethics, of which almost all the journals concerned are members, and undermines the process of review and evaluation that is central to a rigorous academic process. It potentially contaminates the evidence base, since there are no means to determine what covert influence there may have been on the published contents, since the casual reader would not be aware of the role of the intelligence agencies in the funding and review of the research. But let’s imagine that CREST states that the intelligence agencies never intervene in any of their publications. It would still be the case that this ought to be reported in each publication. But would we be able to believe any such declaration? In the event that changes were made for ‘national security’ reasons, would authors be allowed to state this? Finally, in the event that no changes are required to any publication, this in itself, raises the possibility of a potential conflict of interest as the authors are aware of the security vetting and have a clear interest in tailoring their research so as not to infringe any perceived national security concerns. Either way, the introduction of security vetting into science undermines all confidence in the research and in the ability of the authors to be honest about what has been done.

These provisions compromise the whole academic community by producing what Lee calls a ‘biased universe of research findings with little chance of assessing either the direction or the extent of such bias’. As Adler and Adler have argued: ‘The community of scholars loses when we are duped, deceived or misled by the transformation or omission of relevant data’. It also hinders methodological openness. The absence of methodological detail undermines prospects for further research in the area, or the ability to make evaluations on the existing research findings. Such difficulties are exacerbated by failures to properly disclose funding from the intelligence agencies in publications and a structural lack of clarity on the extent to which research findings have been managed or manipulated by the state.

Harms to wider society
As academics we not only have a responsibility, as Chomsky famously noted, ‘to speak the truth and to expose lies’ in our scholarship, but responsibilities to our society as a whole. We therefore need to make ethical choices about our research partners and/or sponsors. Given the substantial body of evidence that UK British security and intelligence agencies engaged in and facilitated torture – in particular in their role in the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation programme  – there are, to say the least, serious concerns about suitability of UK intelligence agencies as an ethical funding source for academic research.


Narzanin Massoumi is Lecturer and a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses on racism, social movements and counter terrorism. David Miller is Professor of Political Sociology in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. Tom Mills is Lecturer in Sociology and Politics at the University of Aston. This article is adapted from Narzanin Massoumi, Tom Mills & David Miller (2019) Secrecy, coercion and deception in research on ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, Contemporary Social Science, DOI: 10.1080/21582041.2019.1616107