‘Big Society’ debate rumbles on

By Juliana Adelman

In late March the Observer ran an article claiming that the major humanities funding body in the UK (AHRC) had agreed under duress to put a large proportion of its funding resources towards research into the ‘Big Society‘.  The newspaper asserted that the new Tory-led government had forced this concession in order to direct humanities research to underpin the party’s own values and plans.  The AHRC disagreed with this interpretation of events and issued a statement on the subject that you can read here and a slightly more recent one here.  While the debate has continued to attract attention from scholars and has often been in the papers, it seems to have heated up again recently with the publication of a letter by the director of the AHRC in the Times Higher Education supplementThere is a petition on the go and I have received a notice on the subject from a couple of email lists that I belong to.  In short, a lot of academics are really angry and concerned that this marks the end of freedom in research in the UK.  Reference is often made to the Haldane Principle which established that research funding decisions should be made by other researchers rather than politicians. I find the idea of funneling research money into political ideologies to be both laughable and worrisome in a democracy.  Nevertheless, I also find it slightly disingenuous that researchers are claiming that having the decision in their own hands is a complete guarantee of academic freedom.  Surely academics also live in the political and social world and are thereby vulnerable to other influences aside from those of their discipline? And of course academia has its own set of politics which are admittedly different from government politics but have a significant impact nonetheless.  What do you think?

5 Responses to “‘Big Society’ debate rumbles on”

  1. Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » ‘Big Society’ debate rumbles on Says:

    […] “In late March the Observer ran an article claiming that the major humanities funding body in the UK (AHRC) had agreed under duress to put a large proportion of its funding resources towards research into the ‘Big Society’. The newspaper asserted that the new Tory-led government had forced this concession in order to direct humanities research to underpin the party’s own values and plans …” (more) […]

  2. Tina Says:

    Love the image, Juliana, and great piece as well! I would agree that the notion of complete freedom is idealistic and unrealistic. That said, however, I do think that we need to be careful about the entwinement of research and government/politics represented by the Big Society for a couple of different reasons. Not only does it suggest a Big Brother like atmosphere wherein research becomes directed not by interest, enthusiasm, or need, but simply by government directive, it also, concomitantly, undermines the objectivity and reliability of research conducted in such an atmosphere.

  3. Nessa Says:

    This is a further discussion of this story and its origins:

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2011/03/30/paul-myerscough/divided-and-ruled/

    This issue is very pertinent to Ireland. Our version of the AHRC – the IRCHSS – demands a lot of vague stipulations about research contributing to the ‘knowledge economy’. How is this much different from the ‘big society’? (advisors to a Tory government didn’t invent it, but advisors to a FF/PD one probably did, and both ideas don’t withstand much interrogation) In reality, the knowledge economy stuff doesn’t seem to have real impact on what gets funded. The ‘big society’ will probably mean the same thing in Britain: some researchers will get funding as they deserve, and some good researchers won’t, and it will not be fair. While it is very reasonable to expect to be paid for research (especially if you are a highly trained young researcher desperately needing a job), historically plenty of good research has not always been funded, and government funding of research has problems as well as benefits.

  4. Juliana Says:

    Good points made above. I tend to agree with Nessa that it is often difficult to see how a large concept such as ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘big society’ trickles down to the specific projects that are chosen. And if you want to be really cynical you could suggest that most anyone could apply appropriate language to an application and then go off and do whatever they like. However, we do have to keep in mind that prevalent notion of ‘knowledge economy’ does bring with it an implication that research should demonstrate a link to economic development. Even scientists who have been most successful at proving their economic value would probably say that good basic research needs to be funded even if it has no obvious economic output.

    On the other hand, Nessa is completely right that good research need not be funded. But this again comes back to the pervasive economic metaphors in humanities. We now think a research project is good BECAUSE it has been funded.

    Juliana

  5. Juliana Says:

    sorry I seem to completely contradict myself above. What I mean is that good research can and is done without funding. That is where we are a bit luckier than the sciences since we don’t need lab equipment. Although of course money for books and travel is not exactly a luxury.

    Juliana

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