The Times Higher Education has published this interview with Rick Rylance, the Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The AHRC delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities cites the "Big Society" five times. The "Big Society" was a campaign slogan by the Conservative Party which lead the UK's coalition government. Petitions have been launched calling for the removal of the "Big Society" and they have attracted nearly 4,000 signatures and supported by a joint statement agreed by over 30 learned societies. This is unprecedented opposition on a position of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans.
The relevant areas of the Times Higher interview are:
"[. . .] Professor Rylance has certainly felt the heat from academics of late, coming under huge pressure to remove references to the "Big Society" from the AHRC's latest Delivery Plan. He has been accused of pandering to party political slogans and of allowing the government to dictate research priorities.
But he insisted that terms such as "dictation" did not capture the reality of the "iterative" discussions that progress over several months around each Comprehensive Spending Review.
"The government says: 'We think X is really urgent,'?" he explained. "You sit down and think: 'Is that something to do with us?' I don't get emails from anyone (in the government) saying: 'You must do this.'?"
He said it was open to each research council to explain why it should not fund a particular "policy bee" in the government's bonnet: perhaps because the subject was already being researched elsewhere, or because officials had "misunderstood the problem".
"Occasionally they will be unhappy with your response, but that is life. It doesn't mean you have to say, forelock tugged, 'That is what we'll do,'" he said, adding that the typical resolution involved a compromise.
"The government knows that if it (dictated research), what it would get is rubbish," he added.
Professor Rylance said his critics were wrong to assume that funding research into a policy area was the same thing as supporting it: AHRC-funded research into the Big Society would be "independent-minded people doing independent-minded research on a topic that is of lively interest to us all".
He also said that if research councils avoided funding work in areas where the government had policies, there would be little left to study. "You choose the most prominent and, from a research point of view, promising topics and set people to work on those." [. . .]"
My reply (posted on their website) is:
"I am delighted to see Rick Rylance pressed further on the inclusion of the "Big Society" in the AHRC delivery plan. He offers at least three claims that are highly objectionable:
The first: critics are wrong to believe that funding research in a policy area is the same as supporting it. This is inaccurate and untrue. The AHRC delivery plan states that it will "contribute" to the Big Society. The AHRC does not appear to merely desire to fund work in an area, but it has raised this "area" to the level of a strategic funding priority. What gives this political campaign slogan such priority at the present time?
The second: Rylance is quoted as saying that the "Big Society" is "a topic that is of lively interest to us all". Where is the evidence? There is certainly no clear academic literature on this political campaign slogan. Why is any such interest "lively" for "us"?
The third: Rylance claims that if we "avoided funding work in areas where the government had policies, there would be little left to study." Yet again, Rylance gets the critics wrong. The petition does not call on the AHRC to avoid funding work on government policies. The petition takes a position of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans should have no place in research council delivery plans. We continue to watch and wait for this clear position of principle to be upheld. Or to have some clear statement why this principle should be breached.
These inaccurate and incorrect replies have done nothing to help the AHRC and its reputation. Clearly, they have "lost the argument" on this and they should listen -- and take more seriously -- their own Peer Review College members who helped launch petitions attracting nearly 4,000 signatures and supported by a joint statement signed by over 30 learned societies. This is truly unprecedented opposition. The AHRC should remove all references to the Big Society and with immediate effect."