Tuesday, May 10, 2011

AHRC Chief Executive on AHRC Delivery Plan and "Big Society"

Research Blogs carries the story here. An excerpt from an interview with AHRC Chief Executive, Rick Rylance:

"[. . .] The AHRC has included the term “Big Society” in the council’s delivery plan, and a 3,000-signature petition, including members of the Peer Review College, called on the council to remove references to this. Were you surprised?

I didn’t anticipate it. Was I surprised? That’s an interesting question actually. I was a little surprised at the timing, that it came then. I was rather dismayed that it came on the back of wholly false allegations made in the Observer story that kicked the whole thing off. So I was much more concerned about those false allegation initially.

Even though there was a clarification? [It is alleged that the British Academy was “pressured”, rather than AHRC]

Well I think there’s an issue about the way the Observer reporter conducted himself through all this. And the clarification from Peter Mandler at Cambridge was extremely helpful. As in all academic communities, there are a number of people who feel challenged and to some degree find it difficult to adjust to a different kind of world, that’s maybe in the academic world, who have values which they maintain are opposition to the way the culture is going. So am I surprised at the number of people holding those views who are concerned about current developments? No I’m not surprised.

Is it not a function of arts and humanities scholarship to provide a critique of what’s happening in public policy?

Absolutely. But I think that would be true of social sciences, also, where relevant, of natural sciences as well.

It’s interesting that peer review colleges of other research councils haven’t felt the need to start mining delivery pans for language that may be political – when there’s a lot in there [relating to government policy], isn’t there?

Yes, there is indeed. Secondly other research councils also get a good deal of opposition to, for example, plans on impact. The AHRC isn’t singular in having part of its community that’s out of step with the way things are going and they’re not shy of registering their dismay about things in one way or another. Your question about taking critical distance is I think absolutely crucial. Because there is nothing in that deliver plan that says that we will flatter the policy preference of the current administration. What is says is we will investigate these areas. Are these areas important? Yes they are.

What if there are resignations over this?

We’re not speculating what the outcome of this will be. We are getting across the community a range of signals, and a range of responses as you might imagine. On the one hand there are a group of people who are signing up to a petition. On the other hand, there’s an awful lot of formal - i.e. written - and informal support for our position as well. So there’s a lot of people who are currently not entering the debate, who do write to us or tell us at events that they are actually quite supportive of the way things are going and dismayed by the tone of some of the disquiet being expressed. So we’re getting very mixed signals and we’ll have to see how things work out.

It is fair to say that when a more right-of-centre government comes back into office then there are inevitably more tensions with the academy than there are with left-of-centre governments?

There’s a very interesting study by Louis Menand, an American study, which says that the academic cultures tend to be liberal minded. And that clearly is an American term but I suspect his analysis is quite true for over here as well. There’s a natural liberal left inclination within the academic community. And therefore they would be… they would tend to oppose the current administration or an incoming conservative government for those sorts of reasons. But there’s bigger issue here, and that is that there is a great value attached to academic freedom and there has been concern over the previous administration as well as this one, about the way in which, for example, the impact agenda has come to be – about what is perceived to be the scrutiny of the quality of outputs through RAE and the like. So there is a concern which pre-exists and also runs through whatever disquiet the academic community might feel about this particular government. And I don’t think it’s an issue that is just confined to this administration."

My response:

"The petition takes a position of principle, not politics. The principle is that political party campaign slogans should not be incorporated within research council delivery plans for strategic research funding priorities. More than 3,200 colleagues signed a petition affirming this AND affirming that they would likewise oppose inclusion of "the Third Way" in a delivery plan published after the 1997 election. Again, this is about principle and not politics. Clearly, the AHRC Chief Executive is not taking genuinely unprecedented opposition to this part of the AHRC delivery plan seriously enough.

The petition can be found here: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/bigsociety/ "


Richard Baron said...

I agree with your response, Thom, but there is something else one could ask in response. We are told that there is a lot of formal and informal support for the AHRC's position. Can we please (a) see the quantified evidence for this, and (b) clarify exactly what position is getting support? Is it support for the use of "Big Society", support for changes in research priorities, support for changes in the factors that are taken into account when setting priorities, or what? The petition has the advantage that it is public, and that we can see how many people have signed it and what position they support by signing. General references to unquantified support for something or other are not in the same league.

The Brooks Blog said...

I am delighted to have your support, Richard. Your points are excellent. Indeed, some claim there has been "some" (not "a lot" or "much" or "a majority") support for the status quo. It would be interesting to know how sizable this group truly is plus the reasons for support. I suspect they either (a) support the government politically [and fail to properly acknowledge the long-term problems of this creating a precedent when new governments arise led by parties they oppose) or (b) naive.

Support for the petition has been truly widespread, unprecedented, and across political divides. If the AHRC continues to show a callous disregard for the views of so many, then something has gone very wrong.