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Science secretary Michelle Donelan has had to eat her words and retract false allegations she made about an academic for the sake of “another Tory anti-woke headline”, following a lengthy legal process.

The cabinet minister smeared Professor Kate Sang as an ‘extremist’ after falsely suggesting she supported Hamas, and had attempted to claim the academic had breached principles on how public officials should behave.

Donelan has now retracted her claim and the government has agreed to pay an undisclosed sum, at the expense of the taxpayer, following a months-long investigation by an advisory group on equality, diversity and inclusion at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which cleared the academic of any wrongdoing. 

Far from the party of free speech, it marks another attempt by a Tory MP to stifle freedom of expression, with the University and College Union (UCU) blasting the secretary of state for launching an “outrageous attack on academic freedom” and has called for the minister to resign.

“This whole affair has had a chilling effect on university campuses and exposes the lie that hard right Tory ministers are the supposed guardians of free speech,” said UCU general secretary Jo Grady.

“This investigation completely exonerates our members and confirms Michelle Donelan’s unprecedented politicised intervention was an outrageous attack on academic freedom.”

Grady called for Donelan to apologise for throwing the smeared academics’ careers into “turmoil” for the sake of, “another Tory anti-woke headline”.

Donelan wrote to the head of the UKRI last October calling for “swift action” against two academics, Professor Sang and Dr Patel. Dr Patel had retweeted a post describing Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide and apartheid” while Professor Sang had described a Guardian article showing government plans to clamp down on pro-Palestine marches as “disturbing”. 

The basis of her false allegations seemed to come from a misleading press release sent by the conservative think tank and lobbying group Policy Exchange based at 55 Tufton Street, who singled out the two academics for “radical views”. 

Alarms were raised last November when it was revealed the Government prepared a secret dossier on an academic’s social media posts, including their support for transgender rights, Black Lives Matter and strikes. 

Over 2,500 academics signed an open letter condemning the minister’s attack on academic freedom around the same time in an ongoing dispute over free speech in academia and Tory MP attacks on academics.

Following Donelan’s false allegations, the Shadow Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Paul Kyle, wrote on X: “Michelle Donelan must urgently prove she has the confidence of the research community after using her department to make false allegations against academics.”

He also slammed the Tories obsession with ‘kicking woke out of science’, after Donelan announced plans to ‘depoliticise’ science.  

“The pursuit of a childish phantom menace has landed a secretary of state in court and distracted from exploiting the huge potential of tech and science for social and economic good,” MP Kyle said.

(Image credit: David Woolfall / Creative Commons)

Hannah Davenport is news reporter at Left Foot Forward, focusing on trade unions and environmental issues

The post Tory minister forced to apologise and pay damages after false allegations about academic appeared first on Left Foot Forward: Leading the UK’s progressive debate.

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