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AHRC will not remove Big Society from its delivery plan

Peer reviewers actively considering quitting

The Arts and Humanities Research Council has no plans to remove references to Big Society from its delivery plan.

Asked whether AHRC would consider removing Big Society, AHRC chief executive Rick Rylance said: “No we are not. The delivery plan sets out to make the best possible case—in difficult economic times—for the importance of arts and humanities research, its relevance to wider social, political, economic and cultural questions.”

In an email exchange with Research Fortnight, Rylance added that there is no Big Society funding stream and that the Haldane Principle is intact.

“Connected Communities is entirely separate from the Big Society and there is no dedicated funding stream for the Big Society. Politicians have no say in what specific research is funded which will be decided by peer review on the basis of the proposals we receive,” he said.

When asked about specific paragraphs in the delivery plan such as 2.4.4, which says: “Connected communities will enable the AHRC to contribute to the government’s initiatives on localism and the ‘Big Society’ in the following areas: […]”, Rylance responded by saying:

“This paragraph does not say that the Big Society is a research priority. It simply says these are the ways in which Connected Communities research could contribute to the group of issues clustered there and under this label.”

The AHRC decision came as a disappointment to members of its Peer Review College who had launched a petition calling on the council to remove references to Big Society. The petition now has more than 2100 signatures

Thom Brooks, reader in political and legal philosophy at Newcastle university, one of the academics behind the petition, said AHRC funded academics were being “treated with disrespect” and that resignations from the Peer Review College were now inevitable.

“I think the only debate that will happen now is how many of us choose to resign from the peer-review college,” he says. “It certainly is something I’m considering.”

Brooks added: “It seems that [AHRC is saying] the way of making the best case of what we do is to use terms of political campaign slogans in order to win more money. But that’s exactly what the objection is”.

“They say that not only are they not going to remove the line, in fact they’re going to work harder to roll it out and spell it out more clearly,” he added.

“I’m surprised that they’re being so resistant to what’s really a very minor thing. They could have said ‘look, you guys are overreacting—we’ll just remove this language—you guys should just calm down’. That would have just made all this yesterday’s news,” said Brooks.

The debate about AHRC’s delivery plan was sparked by an Observer newspaper article, Academic Fury Over Order to Study the Big Society published on 27 March. In the article, Cambridge university historian Peter Mandler was quoted saying that the AHRC had been pressured by officials from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to study the Big Society as a condition of its funding settlement. Mandler later said he been misquoted in the article.

Rylance said the original Observer article has caused confusion. “Given the nature of the allegations made in the Observer article, it is perhaps understandable that there should be misapprehensions about the nature of the Connected Communities programme,” said Rylance, and added that the council is working hard to “operationalise the programme as it is developed during the next spending period”.