AHRC and ‘Big Society’: What’s the story?

There has been lots of comment about the story in yesterday’s Observer suggesting that the AHRC had been ‘ordered’ by the government to fund research on the Big Society in order to secure it’s funding settlement. Lots of complaints, lots of gnashing of teeth about infringements of academic freedom, the erosion of the Haldane Principle, and the like. But something about this story doesn’t quite ring true. Firstly, there is an odd delay involved – the Research Councils received their settlements before Christmas, when they published their Delivery Plans. So why it took humanities scholars so long to notice the substance of the AHRC’s delivery plan is a little unclear. Second, the agendas around community, cohesion, fairness, and the like are not new, post-election issues, and nor is the impact agenda – again, it seems like some people haven’t noticed the general drift of funding policy which has been going on for a while. 

But the main thing lacking from the discussion I’ve seen so far is any acknowledgement that the ESRC’s delivery plan hardly mentions the Big Society at all – one mention, in passing. The relevant ‘priority’ area is dubbed ‘A Vibrant and Fair Society’. Now one might suppose that the social sciences would be more likely to be targetted to deliver research knowledge on the Big Society if there was such a coordinated intent by ‘government’ – the difference between the two Research Councils in this respect seems to suggest that this might be about the internal decisions at the AHRC, who reject any suggestion of undue influence. One might still bemoan the fairly brazen aim of the AHRC to ‘contribute’ to ‘government’s Big Society initiatives’, without having to buy into the idea that this reflects an inappropriate meddling by politicians. The credulity invested in The Observer story seems to indicate a naivety on the behalf of some academics about how research funding does work, and specifically a lack of awareness amongst people in the humanities about just how proactive the arts and humanities bodies have been with ‘instrumental’ agendas of public engagement and impact for some time now

A couple of final thoughts. First, isn’t this a story about the way in which University issues are reported, which might be a matter worth discussing in more detail. And second, what would be so bad with funding research on ‘the Big Society’ – wouldn’t that be an opportunity to do lots of research on Alinski, the histories of mutalism and co-operatives, the relevance of inequality to civic participation, and the like?

Oh, and where I live, of course, the Research Councils are one of the major public sector employers in town, after the Borough Council and the NHS, suffering like the rest of us from funding cuts and efficiency savings.