Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The latest on the AHRC, "The Big Society", and the Government

First, we have this written exchange between Tristram Hunt MP (Labour) and the BIS Minister David Willetts (Con):

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central, Labour): "To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in respect of which Arts and Humanities Research Council projects his Department has allocated funding since May 2010."

David Willetts (Minister of State (Universities and Science), Business, Innovation and Skills; Havant, Conservative): "The Department provides funding to the research councils. It is for the research councils, rather than Government, to allocate funds to individual projects."

Secondly, we have this second exchange between them:

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central, Labour): "To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills what his Department's strategic research priorities are in respect of the Arts and Humanities Research Council."

David Willetts (Minister of State (Universities and Science), Business, Innovation and Skills; Havant, Conservative): "The Department does not have any strategic research priorities in respect of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The AHRC's delivery plan, published in December 2010, was agreed in discussion with the Department. This sets out their strategic research priority areas. A copy of the delivery plan is available on the AHRC website at:  http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/About/Policy/Documents/DeliveryPlan2011.pdf "

What have we learned?

We have further confirmation from the government that it has not put the AHRC under any pressure to include "The Big Society" in its delivery plans. The AHRC has included "The Big Society" -- a Conservative Party political campaign slogan -- in its delivery plan (link provided by the government minister) out of its own free choice. This is also consistent with the claims from the AHRC that they alone made decisions on how best to spell out its delivery plan and they were not put under pressure to include "The Big Society".

We do know that since the publication of the delivery plan that the AHRC suggested the inclusion of "The Big Society" was helpful to the cause in making a case for funding to the government. We have further confirmation now that the government has not earmarked any specific "Big Society" proposals, although a quick search on the AHRC website reveals that there have been several successful funding applications relating to "The Big Society". The objection of our petition was not that we should oppose such applications, but rather the inclusion of a political campaign slogan in a research council's delivery plan for making good on strategic research funding priorities. The latter must be opposed and it is a position of principle, not politics.

There is tremendous support for a change in the AHRC research delivery plan. Over 2,700 colleagues have signed our petition and countless emails/letters are being sent to the AHRC Chief Executive to confirm genuinely held opposition to inclusion of a political campaign slogan in its plans. I believe that Dr Hunt should be congratulated for helping probe this issue further as this issue receives increasing attention.

One written answer request that it would be helpful to see is the following: "To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills whether he believes it is advisable for research councils to include general election campaign themes from any political party in its delivery plan in order to improve their chances of receiving a more favourable funding settlement."

Why? I would expect that David Willetts will quite rightly respond that, no, it is not advisable for any research council to adopt this strategy: the government will agree funding settlements with research councils in a transparent manner in balance with competing requests. No favouritism will be granted to a council because it includes phrases such as "The Big Society" in its delivery plans.

Such a response is not merely expected, but welcome. This would undermine the claim -- already on offer -- that the AHRC has used language, such as "The Big Society", precisely to best sell themselves to government. This is wrong as a point of principle and this case has been made by myself and others on several occasions. But this is also wrong as a strategy for more successfully achieving a better funding settlement from any decent government. Let us hope that such a question is put to Willetts so we can confirm our expectation. This will only help further strengthen the call -- endorsed by colleagues from across political and disciplinary divides -- to remove "The Big Society" from the AHRC's delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities. It has no place in these plans and should be removed with immediate effect.

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