After huge opposition, it seems academics in future will not be pressured to research 'the Big Society'. But we're not in safe waters yet.
In the summer of last year, OurKingdom published an article warning of plans to politicise academic research in Britain. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) had just announced that "the Big Society" was to be one of its research funding priorities. I was involved from the beginning of the campaign to remove Cameron’s political slogan from the research council delivery plan. The opposition brought together over 4,000 signatures from colleagues in Britain and around the world supporting petitions calling for its removal from the strategic plan. We argued that there is no place for political campaign slogans in research funding priorities. This commitment was endorsed by a joint statement agreed by over 30 learned societies. Over 50 senior academics serving on the AHRC’s Peer Review College resigned en masse in protest over the AHRC’s refusal to accept. I wrote a piece, ‘Get your politics out of our research’, after this wide-scale opposition was seemingly dismissed by the council. I urged the campaign to fight on.
Now we can celebrate a victory of sorts. While the AHRC never did remove the words ‘Big Society’ from its pages, they now appear to have accepted that they have lost the argument. The current draft of their next delivery plan makes no mention of the ‘Big Society’. Nor does it mention ‘localism’, another Coalition political focus, which was noted several times previously as well. Indeed, there is no mention of political campaign slogans from any political party. More good news, no other research council has included political campaign slogans in their current plans, answering the worry that the AHRC might set a precedent and open a floodgate.
So how do we build on our success? I hope that the solidarity across disciplinary and political divides can be retained to help us face the likely future challenges around the corner. We need all the support we can find at a time where higher education policy seems almost haphazard.
My second hope is that the AHRC will now try to build new bridges with the academic community to regain lost trust and polish its tarnished image. Whatever its past errors, the fact remains that – at least for those of us in the Arts and Humanities – the AHRC is our research council. I continue to believe that research councils should be subjected to a kind of ‘user satisfaction survey’ to ensure greater accountability and transparency. Nonetheless, I am strongly encouraged by the AHRC’s call for greater engagement with its Peer Review College in its draft plan. Now that the ‘Big Society’ is effectively off the table, this is precisely what we need for the success of our subjects and the good of British research.
The great tragedy is that the AHRC should never have included the ‘Big Society’ in its delivery plan to begin with. But now the lessons seemed learned implicitly, if not explicitly. Let us hope a stronger relationship replaces what went before. We may require nothing less if we are to resist future attempts at government interference into academic research.