Special Reports

UK Science Secretary Settles Damages Over False Hamas Allegations


The U.K.'s science secretary has agreed to pay undisclosed damages to Professor Kate Sang for false accusations regarding Hamas sympathy.

(Photo : PEXELS / Dominika Gregušová)

Allegations and Settlement

Science Secretary Michelle Donelan suggested that members of a research advisory group sympathized with Hamas, later withdrawing her claims.

The controversy began when Donelan criticized members of Research England’s expert advisory group on equality, diversity, and inclusion in a social media post following the Hamas attack on Israel. Donelan accused the group of holding "extremist" and "unacceptable" views, citing Professor Kate Sang's apparent description of the government's plan to address Hamas support in the U.K. as "disturbing."

Subsequently, Sang clarified that her remarks were taken out of context, prompting Donelan to retract her allegations and offer damages. The settlement, facilitated by the law firm Bindmans, was confirmed on March 5.

In her statement, Donelan expressed regret over the misunderstanding and acknowledged Sang's explanation regarding her tweet's context. However, the damage to Sang's reputation had already been done, leading to broader repercussions within the academic community.

READ ALSO: Clash Between Politics and Education at Indiana University Threatens Academic Freedom

Resolution and Fallout

The settlement brings a close to a tumultuous period that saw significant debate over academic freedom and the role of government officials in scholarly discourse.

Donelan's intervention led UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to suspend the equality group, sparking widespread criticism and prompting several academics to resign from their UKRI appointments. However, an independent investigation by UKRI found no evidence of wrongdoing by the advisory group, nor any failure to uphold ethical standards.

Despite the exoneration, the controversy has raised concerns about the influence of political agendas on academic institutions and the potential chilling effect on scholarly expression.

In response to the settlement, Professor Sang expressed her disappointment with Donelan's handling of the situation, emphasizing the damage caused to her reputation and career. Sang criticized Donelan for making "cheap political points" at her expense and urged greater sensitivity from government officials in addressing academic matters.

Meanwhile, UKRI expressed regret over the ordeal experienced by members of the equality group and extended an invitation for them to resume their contributions to the organization's work. However, the fallout from the incident has underscored the need for greater transparency and accountability in the relationship between government bodies and academic institutions.

The resolution of this case serves as a reminder of the importance of safeguarding academic freedom and upholding ethical standards in scholarly discourse. It also highlights the potential consequences of politicizing academic issues, underscoring the need for greater collaboration and mutual respect between policymakers and the academic community.

Implications for Academic Freedom

The controversy surrounding Donelan's allegations and subsequent settlement has reignited discussions about the boundaries of academic freedom and the responsibilities of government officials in addressing contentious issues.

Many academics argue that government interference in academic affairs undermines the principles of free inquiry and open debate, potentially stifling diverse perspectives and hindering intellectual progress. The settlement with Professor Sang underscores the need for policymakers to exercise caution and restraint when commenting on academic matters, particularly those involving sensitive political issues.

Moving forward, there is a pressing need for clearer guidelines and protocols governing the interaction between government agencies and academic institutions to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. By upholding the principles of academic freedom and fostering an environment of open dialogue and mutual respect, policymakers can ensure that scholarly discourse remains vibrant and uninhibited, ultimately benefiting society as a whole.

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