Autonomy row hits LSE as sponsor axes research

by Phil Baty

Times Higher Education Supplement, 12 January 2001

A row over the commercialisation of university research and academic freedom has erupted at the London School of Economics following the decision of a major research sponsor to prematurely pull the plug on a £250,000 contract.

Travel industry lobby group the World Travel and Tourism Council withdrew funding from the LSE in April last year, mid-way through a three-year contract with the school. The WTTC claimed that the LSE's work was of poor quality.

Researcher Thanos Mergoupis and his research assistant lost their jobs as a result of the decision. Mr Mergoupis claims that the pulling of the money was not just breach of contract, but breach of his and the LSE's academic freedom.

Mr Mergoupis has a number of grievances against the LSE for failing to enforce its contract with the WTTC and stand up for the research done in its name.

He claims the LSE's failure to act decisively denied him the protection he is entitled to under the 1988 Education Act. The law allows academics to put forward unpopular and controversial opinions without putting their jobs in jeopardy.

The WTTC commissioned research from the LSE's Centre for the Philosophy of Natural and Social Science to examine the economic and social impact of tourism. A contract was signed to release the £250,000 over three years and work began in 1998.

In September 1999, WTTC vice-president Rick Miller told the LSE's team that one of its research papers was "completely inadequate in its review of... the WTTC's research".

But the WTTC said that suggestions that it withdrew the funds because the LSE was not coming up with the findings it was looking for are "absolutely spurious".

WTTC vice-president for strategy and development, Graham Watson, told The THES that it was not the findings that the WTTC objected to - it had already made some methodological changes on the advice of the LSE's papers - "it was more the nature of the output and some of the methodology that wasn't quite hitting the spot".

The WTTC withdrew funding in April 2000.

Last May, formal legal advice to the university confirmed that the LSE had had good grounds to seek damages to compensate for the premature loss of funding. However, the LSE's failure to dispute the WTTC's decision at the time, it was confirmed, meant that any potential action was almost inevitably doomed.

The Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards is supporting Mr Mergoupis. It said in a letter to LSE director Anthony Giddens that the independence of research is protected in the constitution of every British university by the principle of academic freedom.

An LSE spokesperson said: "Mr Mergoupis has taken up this matter under the school's internal grievance procedure and it is currently being investigated.

"It would be unfair to comment until this process has been concluded."

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