The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has published online its "year in review" noting the most significant events in 2011.
A closer look reveals that -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- the "year in review" makes no mention of the single biggest story concerning the AHRC in recent years. The story is "Observergate": the Observer ran a story this past spring that alleged (a) the AHRC delivery plan includes several references to the "Big Society" and (b) the government put pressure on the AHRC to include the "Big Society". Both the AHRC and government swiftly denied that any pressure was put on the AHRC. Instead, their common position was that the AHRC had freely chosen to include the "Big Society" in its delivery plan without political pressure.
This made a potentially bad situation far worse in the eyes of many. The reason is simple. The AHRC's delivery plan presents its five year plan for strategic research funding priorities. The plan makes repeated mention of the "Big Society": this was a Conservative Party campaign slogan. For example, the AHRC delivery plan states clearly that it will "contribute" to the "Big Society" agenda of the government.
There was an unprecedented show of solidarity in opposition to the AHRC's delivery plan. More than 4,000 academics from the UK and abroad signed petitions calling on the AHRC to remove all mention of the "Big Society" without delay. Over 30 learned societies from across the arts and humanities published a letter in the Observer and Times Higher declaring that the "Big Society" should be removed from the delivery plan. This was then followed by the resignation of 50 senior members of the AHRC Peer Review College (including Fellows of the British Academy and at least one RAE 2008 Panel Chair) when the AHRC continued to refuse to remove the "Big Society" from its delivery plan. A few days later the AHRC CEO became the Chair of Research Councils UK (RCUK).
The connections between the AHRC delivery plan and "Big Society" are unambiguous. The plan states:
* “Connected Communities will enable the AHRC to contribute to the government’s initiatives on localism and the ‘Big Society’” (sect. 2.4.4).
* “We will focus on issues such as the ‘Big Society’” (sect. 2.10.1).
* “The contribution of AHRC plans to the ‘Big Society’ agenda are described in Section 2” (sect. 3.10).
* “In line with the Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda . . . the AHRC will continue to support the integrated programme of RCUK Public Engagement’ (sect. 3.12).
Perhaps it is unsurprising that the biggest AHRC-related news story of the year (and of the last few years at least) would fail to be included in the AHRC's own list of 2011 in review. This appears to be one further attempt to wish this story away and greet the unprecedented opposition with silence.
I hope that journos following this story will draw attention to this revision of history. The AHRC should never have included the "Big Society" in its delivery plan. The AHRC says that there was no political pressure put upon them to include the "Big Society" and ministers confirm this is true. There should then be no problem at all for the AHRC to agree with ministers that the delivery plan should be amended.
It is not too late for a change. It is time the AHRC corrected this without further delay.