Independent authority

The British Academy can be proud of its steadfastly arm's-length allocation of public funds, Adam Roberts argues

April 14, 2011

The independence of research from political interference is a vital principle of a democratic society. It is particularly important in the humanities and social sciences - subjects whose very essence is free and lively exploration of different viewpoints, often touching on major public issues, sometimes controversially. In the UK's higher education sector, research and teaching in these subjects have flourished, and they are highly regarded internationally to a large extent because they are seen as independent. If research had to conform to detailed governmental control, or was perceived as simply serving government interests, academic and public life would be the worse for it.

Peter Mandler ("Wherefore art thou, Haldane? State plans for humanities research", 7 April) has raised the pertinent question: "to what extent should the government be able to dictate priorities for humanities research?" He rightly emphasises the importance of resisting government attempts to micromanage research budgets. He goes on to ask some important questions, which essentially boil down to one, about funding bodies supported by the government. Have humanities funders, including the British Academy, gone too far in meeting the government's "key national strategic priorities"? He clearly suggests that they have. I strongly disagree. Here, from a British Academy perspective, is why.

First, a basic fact. The British Academy is a self-governing association of Fellows. Independence is essential to its purpose, and its independence and authority helped it to successfully argue the case for research funding for the humanities and social sciences.

At the same time, 90 per cent of the Academy's funding comes from the government, with most of it then distributed in the form of research grants. When an independent and self-governing body receives public funding, there are bound to be points of friction. The recent Comprehensive Spending Review process involved challenging arguments. The Academy has not held back from criticising the government - witness our critique of its lamentable policies on foreign-language learning. In the past year, there have been many tricky issues, including that of "impact".

Here I will focus on the two issues mentioned by Mandler: the ending of the British Academy's small grants scheme, and the strategic focus of some British Academy fellowship schemes.

The Small Research Grants Scheme is a funding project of which the Academy is justly proud. We made no secret of the fact that we wanted it to continue, and that it was the government's reservations about certain aspects - especially the cost of delivery, and its claimed overlap with funding sources available within universities - that led to its discontinuation. We argued for its retention and continue to make the case for it. But it is hardly improper for the government to decide which types of research scheme it wishes to fund.

Meanwhile, our new Mid-Career Fellowships Scheme, which replaces it, will support outstanding researchers and also outstanding communicators. That emphasis on communication is our own. The Fellows of the Academy, not the government, decide who receives awards. Certain priorities specified for some awards - such as languages - are ones for which the British Academy has campaigned for years, and are not impositions on us from government.

Mandler's key concern is about a creeping imposition of government priorities on research. The Academy agrees with government that it is appropriate to include an element of strategic focus in some fellowship awards, but it will be wholly responsible for setting priorities, determining topics to be funded, and selecting individuals to be supported. It will be open to applicants to suggest other priorities, and to make proposals not geared to priorities other than the inherent excellence of the research project.

In short, in a difficult environment we worked hard to deliver a successful funding outcome, and also defended the principle that decisions on what is researched, and on who does the research, are taken at arm's length from government. We regret the loss - temporary, I hope - of our small research grants, but the view that there is a general erosion of the Haldane principle, and that the British Academy is part of that erosion, is wide of the mark.

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