Monday, March 28, 2011

The "Big Society" and research funding: political interference gone too far?

This weekend saw news in The Observer of possible political interference in arts and humanities research funding. The full story is here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] Academics will study the "big society" as a priority, following a deal with the government to secure funding from cuts. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will spend a "significant" amount of its funding on the prime minister's vision for the country, after a government "clarification" of the Haldane principle – a convention that for 90 years has protected the right of academics to decide where research funds should be spent.

Under the revised principle, research bodies must work to the government's national objectives, although the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that ministers will not meddle in individual projects. It is claimed the AHRC was told that research into the "big society" was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year.

The director of research at Cambridge University's history faculty, Professor Peter Mandler, told the Observer that the AHRC was forced to accept the change by officials working for the minister for higher education, David Willetts, regarded as one of the intellectual driving forces behind the "big society".

[. . .] A principal at an Oxford college, who did not want to be named, said: "With breathtaking speed, a slogan for one political party has become translated into a central intellectual agenda for the academy." [. . .]"

One reply may be that this is the government's money: they should be entitled to spend it however they wish. Our response should be that -- even if this were true -- government ought not have any place in setting the research agenda for a country. If Britain is to remain academically competitive, then its focus should not be on researching a governing party's political slogan but engaging with the cutting edge of research. This priority may divert attention from engaging in cutting edge research. It therefore is against the party's long term interests and, thus, it ought not support this policy.

A second reply is that this is rather the taxpayer's money and so it is right to have government interference to ensure the money is wisely spent. Our response to this should be that, in fact, this has relatively nothing to do with taxpayer accountability. Most people -- perhaps even most who voted for Conservative Party candidates -- do not know about (let alone support) the "Big Society" (whatever it is). The Prime Minister has (at least in my view) performed rather poorly in setting out and selling his political vision for this idea. Indeed, if I was one of his ministers, I'd recommend that he drop "BS" now: it diverts too much attention and energy from the aims of his government and he'd be much better off in the long run without it.

We should have questions for others as well. Why has the AHRC accepted this "deal"? If the prioritisation of the Big Society was "non-negotiable", then why not take a stand and call the government's bluff? It would be hard to imagine the government refusing to fund the arts and humanities at all. Plus, if they did try to pull such a stunt, then the politics of the situation would surely shame the coalition into reversal (and perhaps a better cash settlement for the AHRC). So why has the AHRC gone along with this? It would be interesting to find out...

All in all, very bad news for research in the arts and humanities as -- if left unchallenged -- this may open the door to political parties dictating all aspects of research priorities, including the priority of focussing research on their political mottos. So much for the political party that claims the desire to cut red tape, cut bureaucracy and centralized control, and return freedom to the people.

The more we see new government proposals pertaining to higher education, the more authoritarian and intrusive they have become beyond previous governments.

UPDATE: Register complaints here.

UPDATE 2: The AHRC response is here. What do others think of this response?


The Snarkery said...

You might want to look at this.

Aaron Maltais said...

So the Conservatives' version of "a big society that will 'take power away from politicians and give it to people'" is one in which those "people" are politicians!

The Brooks Blog said...

Aaron - quite right!

Snarkery - many thanks for this link. Pretty disappointing, no?