Thursday, May 26, 2011

David Willetts: "the research councils will doubtless want to reflect on the hazards of referring at all to current political slogans!"

Today marks a very special moment in a campaign that has run since late March. Readers will be aware that I helped draft a petition calling on the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to remove all references to the "Big Society" in their delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities. The "Big Society" was a political campaign slogan of the Conservative Party. The AHRC funds research in philosophy, law, and other subjects.

The petition is clear evidence of wide support across disciplines and political sympathies. Nearly 4,000 academics signed the petition. More than 30 learned societies agreed a joint statement showing their support for the petition. The petition is based on a point of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans should have no place in research council delivery plans. The support for this point of principle has been genuinely unprecedented.

Throughout, the AHRC has either denied there is a problem or questioned the character of those who have signed the petition. First, the problem is difficult to deny: the delivery plan clearly states the "Big Society" (yes, in caps: it is an explicit reference) five times. (It is also worth noting there are also several references to "localism" which is also part of the Conservative Party election plank. Please carefully note the concern: the concern is not which party these slogans come from, but that they are political party campaign slogans. The petition is clear: our support would be no less if the delivery plan had noted five references to Tony Blair's "Third Way" post-1997 election.) Secondly, the AHRC's tactics have clearly backfired. Opponents have been labelled as against all change or a knee jerk reaction amongst academics because they are most often leftwing. These claims have been refuted on many occasions.

The story takes a new twist. David Willetts has published a new essay in the Times Higher today which can be found here. His essay is an attempt to win over critics to the many government reforms. Willetts is the Minister of State for Universities and Science. He is also a Conservative Party MP. The essay contains this gem:

"[. . .]  the research councils will doubtless want to reflect on the hazards of referring at all to current political slogans! [. . .]"

This is an important new statement and perhaps even an implicit show of support for our petition. (Noted with an emphatic exclamation mark!) The academic community including nearly 4,000 colleagues who called on the AHRC to remove the "Big Society" from its dleivery plan get it. The more than 30 learned societies who supported the petition's aims get it. Now the relevant government minister has weighed in and shown some support.

The argument has been clearly lost by the AHRC. The best thing to do now is to remove the "Big Society" from the delivery plan and begin the task of bringing us together again. Until this happens, we may be less effective than we need to be in getting our message across. We should think about our subject. The subject has spoken. It is high time to listen and act so we can now finally move on and in a constructive spirit.

We are ready to positively engage, but is the AHRC willing to make this important step?

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