Forbidden Knowledge in British Universities


News has broken in the past couple of days about a case at Bath Spa University here in the UK, who have allegedly placed a block on a masters student conducting research into so-called detransitioning. This is the process by which people who identify as transgender, in effect, desire to revert back to their assigned biological birth sex, and reverse the initial decision to transition.

The story first broke through an article in The Times on Saturday (23rd September 2017), but has since been picked up by a number of other outlets, including the BBC and The Independent. In essence, the story looks something like this:

Masters student James Caspian submitted a proposal to an ethical approval committee at Bath Spa University as part of his course in counselling and psychotherapy. Caspian is himself reportedly a counsellor specialising in transgender therapy, wanted to look at the experiences of people who, after transitioning, wanted to reverse their decision. This initial proposal was approved. However, when Caspian found it difficult to find participants to take part in his research, he submitted an ethics amendment to widen his potential pool of participants to those who had transitioned, reversed their decision, but not necessarily undergone reversals to any surgical treatments that they had previously received. This amendment was rejected, which subsequently put a halt to the research project altogether.

 

In the letter leaked to The Times, it was suggested that the ethics committee stated that “Engaging in a potentially ‘politically incorrect’ piece of research carries a risk to the university”, that “Attacks on social media may not be confined to the researcher but may involve the university”, and “The posting of unpleasant material on blogs or social media may be detrimental to the reputation of the university.”

 

For me, this seems to be the clearest example yet of the notion of ‘forbidden knowledge’ rearing its head on British university campuses. That said, this isn’t a new thing to occur. When I was completing my own PhD, I was a student representative on an ethics sub-committee, and found the same kinds of objections being raised in response to controversial research topics. I was never aware of any research being stopped as a result of these debates within the committee, but they did lead to some quite picky requests being made for lines to be added to information sheets and consent forms attached to sensitive research topics.

There are a couple of issues to be addressed here. Firstly, is the reputation of a research institution an ethical concern at all? Presumably, Caspian’s research was reviewed by Bath Spa’s Institute for Education, as this is the school that hosts the counselling and psychotherapy practice masters award. This may be one of the first problems. Had Caspian’s research been reviewed by somebody with knowledge of the British Psychological Society’s code of ethics (which arguably is the most appropriate code of conduct related to this research), they would see that the important factors at play are participant treatment, and researcher competence.

Without having access to the proposal, I can only assume that Caspian had the necessary paperwork in order to ensure that participants were properly briefed about the content of the study, had the right to withdraw, and were not going to be deceived about anything that would be asked of them. That would indicate that the participant treatment box would be ticked. In terms of researcher competence, Caspian is himself a reportedly a counsellor with experience of treating individuals with issues related to their gender identity. Again, there should be no concerns there.

So in essence, what this comes down to is perceived political pressure to not offend, and not to investigate potentially controversial topics. This is a flagrant denial of researchers’ academic freedom, and actually has the potential to cause long-term harm to people who struggle with their gender identity – even after transitioning. According to experts such as Ray Blanchard, some 80% of people with gender dysphoria, which is the clinically diagnostic term applied to some people who identify as transgender, desist over the long-term. This means that around 8 in 10 people who report as being transgendered eventually come to identify as their biological sex.

Caspian’s own clinical practice highlighted a need to understand the needs of people who change their minds about transitioning, but on looking for evidence about how to best treat these people, he found that no research existed. Conducting such research has the potential to inform clinical practice involving these people, and help therapists to improve the lives of their patients.

Forbidden knowledge is an ugly thing, and something that should not be an issue in higher education. Academic freedom is a cornerstone of our research institutions, and we cannot allow political interference to dictate what is and is not an ‘acceptable’ topic to study. Maybe I’m particularly sensitive to this issue, given my own personal research area, but if we allow non-academic pressures to judge what we can and cannot study, we risk scientific research in a number of vitally important areas, from health to crime to education, grind to a halt.

I hope that Bath Spa will come to their sense on this and allow such research to take place. If they don’t, then I hope Caspian can find a more accommodating and open institution to complete this important work.

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