Monday, April 11, 2011

The AHRC and "Big Society": Phase three

The UK-based Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) recently published its delivery plan. The plan spells out how it will deliver on its strategic research funding priorities. The plan states that the priorities will "contribute" to "the Big Society". The "Big Society" is a political campaign slogan of the Conservative Party. "The Big Society" appears five times in this brief delivery plan.

Controversy arose with publication in The Observer of allegations that the AHRC was under political pressure to include "the Big Society" in its delivery plan. These allegations were swiftly denied. Thus, the AHRC claimed that it had freely chosen to include "the Big Society" of its own accord. The reasons given include a need to speak the language of politicians in trying to secure better funding settlements. Many academics were not satisfied by this denial.

Phase one began as an online petition (available here). The petition calls for the immediate removal of "the Big Society" from the AHRC's delivery plan. The petition states that political campaign slogans should have no place in research council delivery plans spelling out strategic funding priorities. The petition has secured nearly 3,000 signatures. This received a generic response from the AHRC which denied there was a problem to solve. It claimed that the Observer allegations were unfounded, that the research priorities long in place, and the relevant funding rather small. This defence struck many colleagues as unsatisfactory yet again. The petition does not accept what the AHRC denies: it does not claim any political interference. Moreover, the petition does not deny that the AHRC decided upon a "Connected Communities" research theme after the last general election, but the petition does take issue with what cannot be denied: the oft mentioned political party campaign slogan of "the Big Society" in the delivery plan. Finally, the funding may be a smaller slice but hundred of thousands of pounds will go to this scheme over the next several years. Besides, the amount of funding is not the issue: the issue is the decision to include a political campaign slogan in the delivery plans.

Phase two was launched shortly afterwards. This consisted of an email and letter campaign to the AHRC Chief Executive where colleagues reiterated their continued insistence that the "Big Society" should be removed from the AHRC delivery plans. This was also met with a generic statement that restated much in the previous statement, and continuing to over look the main issue. Interestingly, there was also a statement on how the AHRC values the professionalism and good advice of its expert Peer Review College: of course, it was its own members of the AHRC Peer Review College who have led the petition and email/letter campaign.

No action has been taken to remove "the Big Society" and resolve the concerns of thousands of colleagues who are members of the AHRC Peer Review College, AHRC grant holders past and present, and those with an interest in the AHRC. With great reluctance after now several attempts to persuade the AHRC having failed, we now enter phase three.

Phase three has two parts. The first part is a common statement declaring concern about the inclusion of "the Big Society" and calling for its removal from the delivery plan to be signed by national and international learned societies across all areas of the arts and humanities. Please contact any such societies and associations you may have contact with and urge them to contact Professor James Ladyman. This statement will be submitted to the AHRC to show the strong support by learned societies for a change.

Phase three, part two is the threat of en masse resignations of members of the AHRC Peer Review College if there is no agreement to remove the "Big Society" from the delivery plan by the end of this month. Anyone who is a member of the AHRC Peer Review College is urged to contact me. I am a member of this College and I will resign if no action is taken. You can find a full list of AHRC Peer Review College members here. Please contact members you know and ask them to contact me urgently about this matter.

Our hope is that this last phase should convince the AHRC of the need for change making resignations unnecessary. Please join us in helping the AHRC see sense. Sign the petition and write to the AHRC Chief Executive. This is a position of principle, not politics. If we do not act now, then political campaign slogans may be the stuff of our strategic research funding priorities in years to come.

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