Research Blogs has run updates giving a blow-by-blow account of a recent event with Alan Wilson, representing the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). These updates can be found here. An excerpt:
"[. . .] 12.50: Q&A now. Questioned on why AHRC researchers have been so critical of the mentions of Big Society in the council’s delivery plan, Wilson says many councils have a role in civilising society and making things better and were jointly working together on the "Connected Communities" project, before the government got on board. All engage with aspects of government agenda, but they don't do it for the government, but for the public, as critical thinkers, he says.
12:52: Wilson: Big Society-gate was blown up out of all proportion and if commentators wanted to work through other delivery plans, they would find many other government references. Questioned on whether the council is trying to direct research to much, Wilson says: “We have £100 million and could easily spent £500m, we have to choose. We have to decide what research should be about in the next five years.” [. . .]"
Wilson's reply is disappointing to say the least. First, the opposition to the AHRC's decision to include the 'Big Society' in its delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities DOES NOT claim that the related 'Connected Communities' project was launched after the coalition government came into office. On the contrary, the language 'the Big Society' was inserted into the delivery plan AFTER the coalition government was formed. The opposition is not to the Connected Communities, but to the inclusion of the Big Society in the delivery plan. This could not be more clear in the petitions. Wilson confuses the opposition by 3,200 academics and over 30 learned societies with a separate matter.
Perhaps all research councils do "engage" with the government agenda of the day. The problem is that the AHRC appears to have crossed a clear line. The AHRC does not appear to simply have "engaged" with the government: instead, the AHRC has included a political party's campaign slogan in its delivery plan spelling out its strategic research funding priorities. The opposition takes a clear position on principle, not politics. The principle is that political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans. Wilson's suggestion that all "engage" fails to account for the fact that the AHRC is not simply engaging with an agenda, it is going much further and including the political campaign slogan of a political party in government in its delivery plans. This is a move that I believe may be unprecedented. There is -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- unprecedented opposition from literally thousands of colleagues in the arts and humanities as a result.
I must also say that it is deeply worrying if the AHRC continues to be unable to even properly acknowledge the relevant concern. This raises many questions about how it has managed the issue. It must be widely agreed that they have thus far clearly "lost the argument" and they would be encouraged to take the simply remedy of removing all references to the Big Society in their documents, including the delivery plan.