The Observer newspaper claimed on March that the relative protection afforded to the AHRC’s budget had been the result of a “deal” whereby it had agreed to spend a “significant” amount of funding on research relating to what Prime Minister David Cameron bills as the philosophical driving force behind his party’s policies.
There are five references to how the AHRC plans to fund research related to the Big Society agenda in the council’s latest delivery plan, published on the same day as its budget allocation was announced last December.
Academics have responded furiously to the story. Bob Brecher, professor of ethics at the University of Brighton, resigned his membership of the AHRC’s Peer Review College and called on others to do likewise.
“The AHRC’s decision to accede to the government’s diktat to focus research on the Big Society is outrageous. It is bad enough that the neoliberal fundamentalists of the coalition should ape Stalin in their attitude to civil society; the AHRC’s collaboration is even worse, threatening as it does the integrity of every academic in the arts and humanities,” he writes in his resignation letter.
James Ladyman, professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol, worried that directing researchers to work on the Big Society contravened the Haldane principle and risked making UK researchers into international “laughing stocks”.
“Our international peers are not interested in anything about the Big Society. If the ideas on our agenda happen to overlap with things the government wants to talk about, fine. But for us to be put in the position where something that wasn’t on our agenda is now painted as being a strategic priority for the academy, then what the hell is going on?” he asked.
He said the move amounted to a “fundamental betrayal” of the AHRC’s mission to protect academic freedom.
A spokesman for the AHRC said the references in its delivery plan to the Big Society referred to the cross-council Connected Communities programme, which the council leads and on which it began work in 2008.
In a strongly worded statement, the AHRC says it “unconditionally and absolutely refutes the allegations reported in The Observer”.
“We did not receive our funding settlement on condition that we supported the ‘Big Society’, and we were not instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced by [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] or anyone else into support for this initiative," it adds.
“The AHRC has been working for over two years, since 2008, with four other research councils, on the Connected Communities research programme, which has been developed through extensive – and continuing – consultation with researchers.
“At the core of this programme is research to understand the changing nature of communities in their historical and cultural contexts, and the value of communities in sustaining and enhancing our quality of life. These issues are serious and of major concern. They also happen to be relevant to debates about the Big Society, which came two years later. To imply that these important areas for investigation constitute a government-directed research programme is false.”
The spokesman added that the programme had been decided on following consultation with researchers. He said the delivery plan had referred to the Big Society to help policymakers understand the concept of Connected Communities.
"You use the language the people you are talking to understand," he said. "People think this means we are going to have more and more control from the centre, but we don’t see that at all. We are doing our damndest to make sure everything remains at arm’s length because that is how it should be.”
The statement adds that “specific research applications are funded on the basis of academic peer review, not government command".
It goes on to claim that there are “further inaccuracies in The Observer article that rest on rumour and misrepresentation”.
It says: “First, The Observer article implies that ‘significant’ funding will be put exclusively into Big Society projects…Second, it is reported that the AHRC ‘was forced to accept the change by officials working for the minister for higher education, David Willetts'.
“There is a confusing subsidiary allegation that ‘the word is that it has come down from the secretary of state, Vince Cable’. Neither is true. If there is evidence to demonstrate these allegations…then it should be revealed. But there is no such evidence because it did not happen.”