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Bigging up the Big Society?

| April 7th 2011

On 27 March, The Observer published a story on the news that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has included the Big Society (BS) in its research agenda:.  Last Sunday I and 187 other academics signed a letter in protest  . (Note: the list of signatories is cut short in the published version.) Here I give some background for my own motivations in putting the letter together.

Since David Cameron first mentioned it the term ‘Big Society’ has gone from a slippery, ideologically loaded election slogan to a slippery, ideologically loaded part of the landscape.  It has become a thing.  People refer to it in meetings, workshops, and discussion forums as if it’s a kind of given – something we must engage with, because it’s there.  And it’s there – with its attendant websites, tsars, and the whiff of the promise of funding – pretty much entirely because the government has put it there.

There is a lot that might be said about the coherence of the notion, its ideological ballast and its ultimate purposes.  But that, in our letter, wasn’t the point.  Our argument was that governments should not use the academic research councils – there are seven, of which the AHRC is the smallest – as instruments through which to pursue their own political agendas.  It wouldn’t matter if the thesis in question were the ‘Third Way’, or ‘we’ve never had it so good’, or ‘alarm clock Britain’.  Academic research is not there to endorse, pursue, bolster or otherwise lend credibility to party political slogans.  Rather, its job is critical enquiry.

Unsurprisingly, this is territory academics are loath to give up.  When the AHRC announced its Delivery Plan for 2011-15 , there was predictable anger among the researchers on whom the ARHC depends to achieve its goals.  The plan makes it clear that the AHRC is committed to contributing to the BS project.  It suggests that AHRC-funded research might ‘clarify and contextualise’ the concepts used in its promotion, and to do this in collaboration with government departments themselves committed to the promotion of the whole BS agenda.

Things have been moving this way for a while.  Since New Labour, there has been concern for the safety of the Haldane principle – see the commentary by Andrew Chitty at  The principle, simply, is that decisions on where academic research funding goes should be taken by academics, and not the state.  The current Government has now restated this, to mean that while government cannot interfere in specific funding decisions, it can direct the councils to concentrate a proportion of their funding in line with ‘key national strategic priorities’.  It is also appropriate, says a December 2010 document from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills ‘for Ministers to ask Research Councils to consider how best they can contribute to these priorities’.  Hence the graceless spectacle of research councils such as the AHRC at pains to show how their own particular programmes might contribute to the BS agenda.

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