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Horns of a dilemma

The British Academy’s next president must find ways to protect it from a hostile government

First the good news: Nicholas Stern will be the second economist in 50 years to hold the post of British Academy president—and possibly the first with a maths degree. Now the bad news: as a former Labour-government adviser and advocate of strong climate-change mitigation policies, his traction with a Conservative-led government could be quite limited.

Stern’s appointment would appear to continue a journey that the academy has been taking under its chief executive Robin Jackson, who joined from the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2006.

With Jackson at the helm, the national academy for the humanities and social sciences has been gradually adding more weight to the social science and policy part of its remit. Alongside its staple of humanities research, conferences, monographs and lectures, the academy now regularly produces publications aimed at policymakers on the economic and public value of humanities research. It is also quick to issue public comment on policy developments likely to affect researchers. At the same time, the academy sees itself as a voice in more national public policy debates. In recent weeks it has contributed to issues ranging from House of Lords reform to the use of ‘nudge’ methods in government.

Jackson and Cambridge-trained Stern are likely to employ a more modern and empirical approach to engaging with senior policymakers than the informal methods employed by previous British Academy presidents, many of whom have been historians, philosophers and classicists.

British Academy presidents from the humanities have nonetheless been able to influence senior ministers and civil servants, often by being members of government foreign and defence-policy advisory committees, as well as alumni networks from private schools, Oxford and Cambridge. Any serving civil servant or minister with a degree in history from Oxford, for example, was quite likely to have been taught by (or come into contact with) Stern’s predecessor, Adam Roberts.

Stern has made notable contributions to many international policy issues. Between 2003 and 2007, under the last Labour government, he was one of Tony Blair’s troubleshooters: first as an adviser on how to create economic growth in Africa, and later as an adviser on the economics of climate change, a subject on which he is as passionate as he is knowledgeable.

So now there may be a danger that, as academy president, he becomes a target for prominent enemies he has made on the right. On the issue of climate change, he has clashed publicly and repeatedly with former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson, who is close to the current chancellor George Osborne and, according to the Liberal Democrats, conspiring with the chancellor to derail the government’s green agenda.

Much of the British Academy’s annual budget arrives as a block grant from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Having a heavy-hitter such as Stern, with intimate knowledge of Treasury processes, will prove valuable in the academy’s preparations for the next spending review, possibly due at the end of next year. He must ensure that his economic activism doesn’t detract from the Academy’s case.