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Why the AHRC is out of step with other research councils

Political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans, says Newcastle University philosopher Thom Brooks

The story began with allegations in the The Observer in March that the Arts and Humanities Research Council was pressured into including the Big Society in its delivery plan [1]. The Big Society was a political campaign slogan used by the Conservative party in the last general election. The AHRC delivery plan spelled out strategic research funding priorities [2]. The Big Society is mentioned five times.

The Observer allegations were promptly refuted by the AHRC in a public statement issued the following day [3]. And a second time [4]. This refutation has appeared to backfire. While the AHRC was quick to deny that any political pressure was involved in the decision to include the Big Society in its delivery plan, it newly emerged that, in fact, the AHRC had freely decided without political interference to include the Big Society in its delivery plan spelling out strategic research funding priorities. The idea was that government might be more likely to fund arts and humanities research if we used language it understood [5]. This news may prove more damaging than the initial (and refuted) allegations [6].

The AHRC delivery plan includes the ‘Connected Communities’ research theme. The plan states that this theme will ‘enable the AHRC to contribute to the government’s initiatives on localism and the ‘Big Society’‘ (sect. 2.4.4). The AHRC delivery plan further states that it aspires to make a ‘contribution’ to ‘the Big Society agenda’ (sects. 3.10, 3.12). The AHRC website hosts a link to ‘Connected Communities or ‘Building the Big Society’’ which may highlight the relationship between the ‘Connected Communities’ research theme and ‘Big Society’ political campaign slogan [7]. The AHRC website also hosts a link to ‘Beauty and the Big Society’ [8]. These links both fall under the website’s domain http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/FundingOpportunities.

The AHRC appears to violate an important principle: political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans spelling out strategic funding priorities. The opposition to the AHRC’s decision to include the Big Society in its delivery plan has been genuinely unprecedented. It has reached out across both disciplinary and political divides bringing together colleagues from across subjects and political sympathies. Importantly, it was led by AHRC Peer Review College members.

More than 3,200 academics signed a petition calling for its immediate removal from the delivery plan [9]. Signatories included members of the AHRC Peer Review College, Fellows of the British Academy and Royal Society, as well as other learned societies. This was followed by several hundred letters and emails of support to the AHRC Chief Executive, Rick Rylance, calling for immediate action. There were further letters published in various newspapers, including a letter signed by over 150 academics in The Observer [10]. More than 30 learned societies signed a joint agreement supporting this campaign [11]. Support remains strong with another petition attracting over 1,300 signatures calling on Rylance to explain why he is unwilling or unable to act in the face of such widespread and unprecedented opposition [12].

Resarch Fortnight’s interview with Rylance has been disappointing at best [13]. He appears to understand this unprecedented opposition in several misleading ways.

1. Rylance says the AHRC’s opponents are people who feel challenged and to some degree find it difficult to adjust to a different kind of world.

This is outrageous and an unjustified (and unwarranted) ad hominem comment about the thousands who signed the petitions and the multidisciplinary support this campaign has forged across political divides—not least members of his AHRC Peer Review College. This is not opposition to all change, but to this particular change. Our united opposition is based upon a clear principle: political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans. This principle is under threat and the academic community has come together to voice clear opposition to any violation of this principle. We should expect Rylance to engage with the central issue of principle, not question our character.

2. He says the AHRC is not out of step with other research councils.

This is untrue. No research council delivery plan has explicitly included the political campaign slogans of any political party. Only the AHRC has made this move and this is why the AHRC has been the focus of attention. While it is true past governments have had various policy priorities, these have been very different in character. For example, climate change became an issue of greater importance in recent years. The difference is that no political party ‘owns’ climate change. It is no more a Labour issue than Green issue and the Conservatives have promised us the most green government ever. The Big Society is entirely different. It is a political campaign slogan of a single party. The AHRC is acting entirely out of step with other research councils in crossing a clear line of principle.

3. Rylance says that delivery plans include nothing that will flatter the policy preference of the current administration.

This is also untrue. The delivery plan is explicit: it will ‘contribute’ to the Big Society. What is unflattering about that to the current government? We oppose inclusion of the Big Society in these plans. It is not for us to defend its inclusion, but we should expect a reasoned response in light of the widely popular public reasons voiced in opposition.

4. He says there’s an awful lot of formal – i.e. written – and informal support for the AHRC’s position as well.

There may be limited support for the status quo. But what of the thousands in opposition? Do they not clearly outnumber those few in support? What also of the 30-plus learned societies in opposition? This is unprecedented solidarity. When will the AHRC listen to its ‘stakeholders’? The AHRC should not treat its own Peer Review College members and others with such low regard and clearly ‘the argument’ has not been won. We should expect a greater effort to persuade through constructive engagement. Unsubstantiated evidence and false claims about the character of others are not appropriate.

5. Rylance says that opposition is actually political and not principled: there is a natural liberal left inclination.

This is particularly outrageous and a further unsubstantiated claim about the character of the thousands who have voiced their opposition including the 30 learned societies who have joined us. We have clearly stated that we would also oppose inclusion of ‘the Third Way’ if the delivery plan had included such language after the 1997 general election. This is a position of principle and not politics. It is increasingly clear that Rylance views this more in terms of an unruly, leftwing group of cranks rather than a principled, mulidisciplinary opposition across political divisions united in its call for the removal of political campaign slogans from delivery plans.

Regrettably, it is increasingly clear that the AHRC chief executive, Rick Rylance, is unwilling or unable to thoughtfully address the clear and unprecedented opposition to including the Big Society in the AHRC delivery plan. He appears to have no arguments but only ad hominem comments about the character of the thousands in opposition to its inclusion. To be clear, our petition says:

“More than 3,200 academics have already petitioned for the removal of the Big Society from the AHRC plan. More than 30 professional associations in the arts and humanities societies oppose its inclusion. In response to such broad, reasoned and unprecedented opposition, Rick Rylance, the AHRC chief executive, has neither given a public justification for including this slogan, nor suggested any amendment that would bring the plan into conformity with the principles of higher education funding to which the AHRC is committed and which taxpayers are entitled to expect.

The signatories of this letter have grave doubts about Professor Rylances capacity or willingness to defend these principles. When a campaign slogan finds its way into a spending plan, things go badly wrong. When those responsible for its presence refuse to listen to their stakeholders, things have gone from bad to worse. We again call on Professor Rylance to amend the plan or to explain to the public why he is unwilling or unable to do so.”

I would expect several of my fellow AHRC Peer Review College members to resign if Rylance remains unwilling to make the small, but highly important, change removing the Big Society from its delivery plan. Once more and on behalf of the thousands in support: we call upon the AHRC to remove all references to the Big Society. This is a position of principle, not politics. The principle is that political campaign slogans have no place in delivery plans for strategic research funding. The academic community is watching and waiting.


[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/mar/27/academic-study-big-society

[2] http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/About/Policy/Documents/DeliveryPlan2011.pdf

[3] http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News/Latest/Pages/Observerarticle.aspx

[4] http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News/Latest/Pages/AHRCrejectsObserverallegations.aspx

[5] http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=415641

[6] Readers may also be interested in this op-ed in The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/columnists/thomas-sutcliffe/tom-sutcliffe-when-did-the-big-society-turn-into-big-brother-2255798.html

[7] http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/FundingOpportunities/Documents/buildingthebigsociety.pdf

[8] http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/FundingOpportunities/Documents/ccboltonpresentation.pdf

[9] http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/thebigsociety/

[10 ]http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2011/apr/03/letters-cameron-scargill-comparison?INTCMP=SRCH

[11] http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=415911&c=1

[12] http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/bigsociety/

[13] http://exquisitelife.researchresearch.com/exquisite_life/2011/05/i-am-extremely-positive-about-the-future-of-the-arts-and-humanities-rick-rylance-interviewed.html