Thursday, April 07, 2011

The petition and email campaign to remove "The Big Society" from the AHRC's delivery plan gathers pace

The Times Higher has made this one of their top news stories of the week -- and rightly so. The story may be found here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] Academics have begun a mass email campaign to try to persuade the Arts and Humanities Research Council to remove references to the Conservative Party's "Big Society" agenda from its delivery plan.

[. . .] "Research councils should not direct funding to strategic areas which overlap with any political party's slogans," the petition says. Its originator, Thom Brooks, reader in political and legal philosophy at Newcastle University, is now urging signatories to email Rick Rylance, chief executive of the AHRC, directly.

He said further action would also be considered if Professor Rylance did not remove all references to the Big Society from the funding council's documents. He said it would be "worrying" if the AHRC had chosen to mention the Big Society in the hope of securing a better funding settlement. "It would mean that the government would not need to exert any pressure...because the AHRC would choose to steer in its direction anyway," he said. He also doubted that politicians were "so shallow that the mention of this phrase will make them more likely to fund the arts and humanities in this age of austerity".

In a letter to The Observer this week, a group of 188 academics said they were "appalled" that the AHRC "intends to promote" research on the Big Society: "That the AHRC has (apparently) volunteered to do this is all the more craven." [. . .]"

The petition -- found here -- has now attracted 2,800 signatures. Countless emails and letters have now been sent to the AHRC Chief Executive as well (see here for more).

I strongly encourage readers to sign the petition and to contact the AHRC Chief Executive about this issue. It is extremely important that this point of principle, not politics, wins the day: there is no place for political campaign slogans in the delivery plans for strategic research funding priorities.

I remain hopeful we will see positive changes soon although the AHRC has remained virtually silent and refuses to see that there is a problem. If changes do not come soon, then I will call upon my fellow members of the AHRC Peer Review College to join me in resigning en masse in a clear show of solidarity in favour of this important matter of principle. Let us hope it does not come to this, but it is important we take a clear stand.

UPDATE: The AHRC has published this response. I urge readers to visit the link for a careful look. An excerpt:

"[. . .] As previously stated, we reject the allegations, reported in The Observer of 27 March, that government ministers influenced the research funded by the AHRC with respect to the current administration’s policy on ‘big society’, and the further allegation that our funding settlement was conditional on this. These allegations have not been supported by any evidence. One person quoted has said subsequently, in a public blog, that the allegations he made did not refer to the AHRC.

We also reject allegations made in a letter to The Observer on 3 April that the AHRC is intending to ‘promote research on “the big society”.’ The AHRC does not have a dedicated budget to promote ‘big society’ research.

[. . .] We unconditionally support the Haldane principle. Expert peer review underpins funding decisions at the AHRC, and decisions are made on the basis of competitive excellence and not specific policy agendas. More than this, the academic community is represented at every level of our decision-making and governance structures and we consult very widely on the development of all of our strategic research priorities.

We recognise and celebrate the immense value brought to research by our Peer Review College members and the professionalism and judgement they bring to ensure the integrity of decision-making. We are committed to peer review unconditionally, not least to sustain the Haldane principle.

The false allegations made in The Observer, and events subsequent to their publication, are of major concern to us. In developing our Delivery Plan, and since its publication, we have engaged in extensive dialogue, for example through our meetings with Subject Associations and visits to HEIs. We plan to continue these activities as scheduled and to initiate further opportunities to debate the issues involved."

This response fails to address the primary worry of petition signatories: the inclusion of "The Big Society" in the current AHRC delivery plan. The petition calls for the immediate removal of "The Big Society" and it is signed by members of the AHRC Peer Review College, amongst other learned societies.

The AHRC appears to continue the response that there is no problem. The related research theme existed before the current government. There was no political pressure to include "The Big Society" in its delivery plans. No money is targetted at funding "the Big Society" in its plans. Those who criticise the AHRC base their criticisms on "false allegations".

The AHRC fails to understand that the petition nowhere claims what the AHRC rejects. The petition does not claim the "Connected Communities" research theme appeared after the current government. The petition does not claim there was any political pressure on the AHRC in drawing up its delivery plan. The petition does not even state that the AHRC directs funding to any slogan.

The petition objects to what is not denied: the "Big Society" is noted several times in the AHRC delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities. The petition calls for the immediate removal of "The Big Society" without further delay. This is a point of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans.

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