'Big Society' a small part of our anxieties

May 19, 2011

Rick Rylance's reassurance that the Arts and Humanities Research Council's interest in the "Big Society" is confined to "informed and appropriately critical investigation" is welcome ("Unsound caricature", 12 May). However, it would have been better if the AHRC's Delivery Plan had adopted that kind of language rather than pledging to "contribute to the government's initiatives" in "line with the government's 'Big Society' agenda". That's the kind of language that makes people question under what political pressures such delivery plans are written.

However, Rylance does not address the wider and deeper concerns growing among academics (and non-academics), of which the outcry over the AHRC's commitments to the Big Society is only one symptom. A key source of discontent is the growing share of state funding for the humanities that falls within top-down "strategic-mode programmes" - where peer review decides what to fund on the basis of intellectual merit, but only within "strategic priorities" decided by government bodies (of which the AHRC is one). Equally, the shrinking share devoted to bottom-up "responsive-mode programmes" - where peer review decides what to fund on the basis of intellectual merit, full stop - is also a worry.

It would be useful, then, if Rylance could address these bigger questions. First, what is the proportion of AHRC research funding allotted to responsive-mode programmes? It is impossible to tell from the Delivery Plan, because its sums don't add up. Nor is the full extent of strategic-mode funding made clear, as elsewhere the plan hints vaguely but ominously at "new methodologies for making awards...to reduce the number of 'open calls'" in all AHRC funding programmes.

Is it the AHRC's intention - again, left vague in the Delivery Plan - to extend strategic priorities for the first time to postgraduate funding through the next block grant partnership allocations? This would represent a major change in our academic culture if state bodies were to intervene so extensively in deciding what kinds of topic the next generation of humanities researchers should be working on in their professional training.

Finally, does the AHRC stand by its view, expressed as recently as its 2005-06 annual report, that "responsive-mode funding" is "the key means, in the arts and humanities...of stimulating and supporting imaginative and innovative research"? More clarity on these issues would not only bolster the fundamental principle of transparency in public life, but would also provide genuine reassurance about the future of free academic enquiry that so many people are anxious to have and Rylance seems commendably anxious to offer.

Peter Mandler, Professor of modern cultural history, University of Cambridge

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