Wednesday, May 25, 2011

New major embarrassment for the AHRC

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) decided to include several references to the "Big Society" in their recent delivery plan. The Big Society was a political campaign slogan of the Conservative Party, now leading the current coalition government. The delivery plan spells out the primary strategic priorities for research funding in all areas of the arts and humanities, including philosophy and even law.

The delivery plan's inclusion of the Big Society caused a genuine uproar. No previous research council delivery plan had ever explicitly referenced the political campaign slogans of political parties. About 4,000 academics signed petitions calling on the immediate removal of the Big Society from the AHRC delivery plan. This action was supported by a joint statement agreed by over 30 learned societies in an unprecedented show of solidarity and opposition.

The AHRC response has been disappointing, but bordering on farcical. We have only recently heard the AHRC's Chief Executive defend inclusion of the Big Society on the grounds that the Big Society is "of interest" and to "us all". The AHRC delivery plan clearly states that it will "contribute" to the Big Society.

There is a major new embarrassment. The government recently confirmed it will relaunch the Big Society idea: by some estimates, this is the fourth such relaunch. The embarrassment is that Lord Wei has now announced he will step down as Big Society "tsar". This news can be found here.

The problem: if the government cannot even convince its tsar to see through the fourth relaunch of the "Big Society" within days of its announcement, then what evidence is there that the "Big Society" should be one of the highest strategic priorities of future directed research funding in the arts and humanities? This is not merely a bad argument or a lost argument (of course, it's both), but the issue is quickly becoming a farce. It is high time the AHRC listened to its own Peer Review College -- the organizers of the petitions -- and removed references to the "Big Society" with immediate effect.

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