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Suppression clauses in university health research: case study of an Australian government contract negotiation

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Government research contracts routinely contain suppression clauses. Have universities forgotten their role in promoting open enquiry?

In a 2006 survey of a random sample of public health academics in Australia (46% response fraction), 21% of the 302 respondents reported having personally experienced a funding-related suppression event in the preceding 5½ years; ie, a funder had invoked a clause in the funding contract “sanitising, delaying or prohibiting” the publication of research findings.1The study also showed that the incidence of sanitisation events had increased over time. According to the respondents, their work was targeted because it “… drew attention to failings in health services (48%), the health status of a vulnerable group (26%), or pointed to a harm in the environment (11%)”.1

These findings appear to reflect a worrying tendency of Australian governments to seek to control the conduct and reporting of public good research.2 In this article, I present an account of a recent contract negotiation that arose from a researcher-initiated grant application in a competitive round called by an Australian state government agency. This will be followed by my analysis of the negotiation process, and a proposed research agenda for investigating the extent, causes and implications of such…