Friday, October 07, 2011

The AHRC and the Big Society: The Next Chapter

Readers will be aware of my efforts to persuade the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to remove the "Big Society" from its current delivery plan. The plan spells out the AHRC's strategic research funding priorities for the next several years. These priorities include a commitment to "contributing" to the British government's "Big Society" programme, a political campaign slogan that has failed to take off despite four relaunches. Yesterday, the Prime Minister made only two brief mentions of the "Big Society" in his Conservative Party conference speech (neither telling us what it is...yet again).

The efforts to remove the "Big Society" from the AHRC's delivery plan included:
* Petitions signed by over 4,000 academics calling on the AHRC to remove the "Big Society" from the delivery plan immediately.
* A joint statement signed by over 30 learned societies calling on the AHRC to remove the "Big Society" from the delivery plan immediately. (To date, the AHRC has never commented on this joint statement.)
* The resignations of aabout 50 senior academics from the AHRC's Peer Review College because the AHRC refused to remove the "Big Society" from its delivery plan.
This is unprecedented opposition to research council plans.

There have not been encouraging developments since on several fronts. The AHRC has not changed its position or made any amendments. Within days of the mass resignation from the AHRC Peer Review College, the AHRC CEO took up the position of RCUK Chair - the head of Research Councils UK. Furthermore, we have recently heard from the universities minister that he has hopes to break with the Haldane Principle, a principle that safeguards research funding from political interference.

Yet, there is hope. I recently called upon colleagues to join me in writing to the AHRC under the formal complaints procedure. The subject of the complaint is that the AHRC may well be in breach of its Code of Conduct in its inclusion of the "Big Society" in its delivery plans. This is because the AHRC must avoid providing any grounds for criticism that funding might be related to political party purposes. The fact that thousands of academics have signed petitions, 30+ learned societies have protested, and dozens of senior academics have tendered resignations appear to be material evidence of a breach. I should know the results of the AHRC's investigations shortly. (If they do not agree, then there is a parliamentary ombudsman who will decide upon appeal.)

The AHRC is recruiting for new Peer Review College members. Oddly, they wrote to me about rejoining and asking others to do likewise. Nevertheless,  the "Connected Communities" link provided (e.g., the programme which will "contribute" to the "Big Society") says much about the programme, but makes no mention of the "Big Society" despite the fact that the AHRC delivery plan clearly states - and about a half dozen times - links between this programme and the Big Society in the AHRC's 2011+ plans. A sign that the AHRC has accepted the widespread criticisms from across the sector and the world? Possibly, but let's see that change to the delivery plan to confirm it.

UPDATE: The AHRC has published its Annual Report 2010-11. The report makes no mention of the "Big Society" -- nor does it appear to make any mention of the unprecedented criticisms the AHRC has received since March over inclusion of the "Big Society" in its delivery plan.

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