UK: Research council slated for bowing to ideology

For some time, UK academics have been getting disturbed by this. It's the current 'delivery plan' for the Arts and Humanities Research Council, one of the seven through which academic research in the UK is funded. What's disturbing is that it appears to position the AHRC's own direction in response to a particular government priority: the promotion of 'the big society'.

This phrase was first used in 2009 by Prime Minister David Cameron. It denotes a particular diagnosis of various social ills, and with it a broad set of proposals for how those ills might be remedied. The 'big society' is thus a party-political agenda, within a distinct ideological framework.

Here are some quotes from the AHRC's Delivery Plan for 2011-15:

* page 9: "Connected Communities [a funding programme delivered in collaboration with other research councils] will enable the AHRC to contribute to the government's initiatives on localism and the 'Big Society'".

* page 10: [AHRC-funded] research "clarifies and contextualises" "key behavioural or evaluative concepts" used in "recent speeches on the 'Big Society'"

* page 12: "We will focus on issues such as the 'Big Society', localism and cohesion (with the Department for Communities and Local Government and local government)..."

* page 16: "The contribution of AHRC plans to the 'Big Society' agenda are described in Section 2".

It is clear from these statements that the AHRC sees it as part of its brief to contribute to the 'big society' agenda, to clarify and contextualise the concepts involved in its promotion, and to do this in connection with government departments themselves committed to the promotion and enactment of a particular ideological direction.

There is now a vigorous campaign aimed at getting the AHRC to remove references to the 'big society' from its delivery plan. At the time of writing, 3,105 people had signed a petition in protest.

Pieces by, among others, Stefan Collini, James Ladyman and Andrew Chitty staked out the issues and made clear the depth of resistance. Some 188 people signed a letter to the Observer newspaper, in response to its 27 March story on the issue.

That story suggested that the AHRC had agreed to prioritise study of the 'big society' in return for an enhanced funding settlement. This allegation was immediately strongly rebutted by the research council. They had a point. In fact, the AHRC had volunteered to speak the language of government ideology, presumably in order to gain more cash, or otherwise ingratiate itself with Whitehall.

Because this looks all the easier to reverse, the campaign to remove the 'big society' from the AHRC's own stated priorities has gained further impetus since.

There has been no apology from the council leadership for its stance, and indeed little by way of direct reply to any of these lines of criticism. What reply there has been has come either with a 'so what?' shrug, or quasi-righteous indignation.

So the research council's endorsement of the 'big society' agenda is quite brazen stuff, and to its critics, pretty craven.

But it would be naïve to assume that this desire among research councils to accommodate party political aspirations is a new thing, or that the boundaries between research and ideology were not already blurred.

The New Labour administration of 1997 to 2010 was not keen to let the Haldane principle - that decisions on where academic funding goes should be taken by academics, and not by the state - get in the way of its preferred direction for university research.

The current government has now restated this to mean that while government cannot interfere in specific funding decisions, it can direct the councils to concentrate a proportion of their funding in line with 'key national strategic priorities'.

It is also appropriate, says a December 2010 document from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, "for ministers to ask research councils to consider how best they can contribute to these priorities". Hence the current unedifying spectacle.

It looks as if we're at a kind of watershed in this general trend towards the instrumentalisation of academic work for political and economic ends.

As I write, there is a campaign to ask learned societies across the arts and humanities to join the call for the AHRC to delete references to the 'big society', and to distance the 'Connected Communities' programme from what critics, happy enough with the echo of 'bullshit', like to call the 'BS agenda'.

Members of the AHRC peer review college are being encouraged to resign en bloc.

If either of these things happens, the research council will no longer have the option of shrugging. It will find itself in a very difficult place, between a Conservative-led coalition in the process of removing government funding for university teaching in the humanities, and an academic community increasingly hostile to collaboration in the undermining of its own work.

Something has to give. Let's hope it's not the credibility of the AHRC, which is in danger of looking ridiculous to those - the research community - who we might expect to value it the most.

* Dr Gideon Calder is reader in ethics and social philosophy at the School of Health and Social Sciences, University of Wales, Newport.