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AHRC peer reviewers resign en masse

Academics call on chief executive to stand down

Over 40 senior academics have resigned from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s peer review college over the council’s refusal to remove references to the ‘Big Society’ from its delivery plan.

Several of the 43 resigning members—including Leslie Green and Ritchie Robertson from the University of Oxford, Stephen French from the University of Leeds and Alexander Miller from the University of Birmingham—are even calling for Rick Rylance, the AHRC chief executive, to stand down.

“Never in the history of the funding councils has an executive officer got so far out of touch with the principles on which we run,” says Green. “Rick Rylance should step down and let someone else take over. He can’t continue with thousands of stakeholders, dozens of learned societies, and scores of college members deploring his decisions.”

“Rylance’s conduct is disgraceful,” added Green. “His public replies in the press have been utterly dismissive to people who have thought about this long and hard.”

Green’s views are echoed by French, who describes Rylance’s conduct as “bad politics”: “I want to support the AHRC but not under these circumstances and not with the high-handed way that Rylance is treating people—he’s not even responding to these concerns,” he says. “It’s been a disaster.”

Thom Brooks, organiser of the protest and a reader in political philosophy at the University of Newcastle, says that the resigning members—almost exclusively professors—are now likely to start calling on other members of the college to follow their lead. “These are people who head the research structures at their colleges and who don’t have to worry about institutional backlash,” he says. “I thought of [the resignation of senior academics] as a symbolic act, but it could lead to more resignations”.

Many of the resigning academics told Research Fortnight that, although campaigning has been going on for months, the final straw came following Rylance’s “reluctance to communicate” with them on the matter.

Brooks has been involved in launching several petitions calling on the AHRC to remove its Big Society references—attracting nearly 4,000 signatures from academics and backing by some 30 learned societies. Brooks says resignations from the peer review college have always been a “last resort”. “Absolutely none of us wanted to resign,” he says. “We are not left-wing anarchists, we are part of the system—we’re not fighting it.”

However, not everyone was willing to take part in Brooks’ campaign. Stephen Clark, a professor of the philosophy of science at the University of Liverpool, said in an email that he will continue to work for the peer review college since he sees nothing wrong in researching political slogans and that he has found no evidence that other research is being sidelined.

The AHRC said in a statement to Research Fortnight that it “regrets” the resignations.

The AHRC’s delivery plan, published in December 2010, makes several references to the government’s Big Society slogan—some of which relate to the cross-council “connected communities” research programme.Rylance has previously told Research Fortnight that the council had been working on this programme for two years before the mention of the Big Society was added and that there is no dedicated funding stream for the Big Society itself.

But the campaigners argue that the “promotion” of a party-political slogan in a research council’s delivery plan is unacceptable and breaches the Haldane Principle, which protects publicly funded research from political interference.

“It would be perfectly valid to research, for example, the impact of political slogans on society, but that’s not what’s going on here,” says Paul Williams, a professor of Indian and Tibetan philosophy at the University of Bristol and a resigning AHRC reviewer.

“What’s happening is that if your research project contributes to the concept of the Big Society, then it’s more likely to get funded. That’s unacceptable,” Williams adds.