Today the Arts & Humanities Research Council responded to yesterday’s piece in The Observer claiming that the government had readjusted the rules (specifically The Haldane Principle) to increase their control over the direction of research in the UK within the state’s ‘national priorities’. Shorter version: the Tories didn’t pressure us, we’re completely independent and the funding to ‘The Big Society’ is coincedental.
Iain Pears is on the case. As he notes, it’s simply not convincing that the approved language suddenly appeared in the relevant documents unconnected with the political agenda of the governing party. The pressure may have been implicit, and the relationship might have been more informal and complicit than hierarchical, but the consequences for research are much the same.
But the AHRC not only wants to defend itself from these specific charges but also to maintain the legitimacy of the government setting overall priorities. Once again, the exact mechanics are expected to be taken on trust. Indeed, in 2009 a Commons Select Committee (Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, since you asked) addressed this exact point. While agreeing ‘in theory’ that the government had a role in setting overarching strategy, the relevant MPs (hardly a selection of Parliamentary rebels) put their collective figure on the aspects of policy that still concern us most:
One of the principle battle-cries of the education movement has been that the coalition’s plans amount to a privatisation of the university system. This conclusion is arrived at by a focus on the withdrawal of teaching funding and the increased role given to ‘good relations’ with the private sector. These criticisms stand, but they repeat a common misunderstanding of the neo-liberal project as merely removing the state (call it the laissez-faire fallacy), rather than reorientating the state in a particular way to benefit certain sections and classes of society. The government is obviously complicit in promoting such tropes, which reinforce its narrative of supporting the grassroots and entrepreneurs and civil society and volunteers and champagne and candy for everyone. Hence their frankly playgroup standards of messaging. The Big Society is yellow and smiley-face! The Big Government is red and angry-sad-face!
But we now learn that the government has settled on a rather interventionist approach to all the lovely knowledge we are tasked to produce. ‘Two-minds’ Willetts has decided that the Arts & Humanities Research Council will be allowed to distribute £100 million in research monies each year, but only on condition that it accepts a ‘revision’ of the Haldane Principle (“that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review”) and so spends a ‘significant’ amount of that money on research into the Big Society. Under the new ‘understanding’, the government continues to ‘value’ and ‘recognise’ the importance of academic independence, but wishes only to propose the merest of commonsensical adjustments:
At the other end of the spectrum there are decisions that ultimately must be for Ministers, albeit informed by external advice; these include the overall size of the funding for science and research and its distribution between the Research Councils, the National Academies and Higher Education research funding. In addition, every Government will have some key national strategic priorities such as addressing the challenges of an ageing population, energy supply or climate change. The research base has an important role to play in addressing such priorities and the Research Councils, with the support of independent advice, have proposed research programmes to tackle them. It is also appropriate for Ministers to ask Research Councils to consider how best they can contribute to these priorities, without crowding out other areas of their missions. But it is for the Research Councils to decide on the specific projects and people to fund within these priorities, free from Ministerial interference. Similarly, Ministers have a legitimate role in decisions that involve long term and large scale commitments of national significance.
The overall mood is civil-service vague, but elements of the language are importantly precise. Continue reading