Top pair quit academy

April 1, 2005

Two senior members of the umbrella body representing 50,000 British social scientists have resigned amid rumblings of a mounting crisis of confidence in the organisation.

The Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences (AcSS), which represents 43 separate learned societies in the field, confirmed last week that its chair, Ian Forbes, and its director, Sharon Craig, had resigned.

Professor Forbes, who departs before the end of his full term of office, insisted this week that he had left the academy in a strong position, voluntarily, after six years in charge. But the departures were accompanied by claims from some learned societies that the academy is failing to punch its weight.

Members of the Political Studies Association are understood to be pressing to withdraw from the AcSS altogether, and it is thought that the Royal Geographical Society also has reservations about the AcSS.

"There is a lot of frustration that they just don't seem to achieve anything," said one senior learned society source who refused to be named.

"It has an important job to represent social science in the UK but doesn't seem to be able to do anything about it."

The AcSS was set up in 1999 to help bring social sciences out from the cold after years of perceived neglect under the last Conservative administration.

After the election of the Labour Government, social scientists sensed a renaissance - the budget of the Economic and Social Research Council was increased and figures such as Anthony Giddens were invited into the corridors of power.

But problems with the academy's direction have been rumbling. In a letter to academicians last month, David Turner, honorary treasurer of the AcSS and principal lecturer in history at Glamorgan University, confirmed Forbes' and Craig's resignations, and added: "Over the past year to 18 months, seven members of council have resigned their positions." There are currently five vacancies on the 15-strong council.

Another anonymous source, from a separate learned society represented by the academy, said: "It seems to react to initiatives, but it doesn't seem to take the initiative or have an overall strategy."

He said the AcSS failed to take a lead during a lobbying campaign against government plans to focus research into a smaller elite of universities, where societies such as the RGS and the vice-chancellors' umbrella group, Universities UK, pushed the agenda. He also said little had come of its landmark Commission on Social Sciences report, Great Expectations . "The title says it all," he said.

There are also concerns that the academy could usurp the role of the older, and often more prestigious, individual learned societies in the field's relationship with the Government.

Accounts filed with the Charity Commission suggest the organisation is not in good financial health. For the year ending December 2003, the AcSS reported an expenditure of £118,562, which outstripped its gross income of Pounds 105,497, by £13,065.

Professor Forbes, professor of politics at Nottingham University, admitted that there had been recent questions about the Political Studies Association's continued membership of the academy. But after discussions the PSA's membership was confirmed and its subscription fee was paid. He said that the academy generally enjoyed very strong support from its member organisations.

"I have been chair of the academy since its inception and it has met its aims and objectives," he said. "We were set up to take a role that no other organisation was fulfilling - to represent social science at the highest level -and there is no doubt that the academy does that."

He said that a recent strategic overview had established that the academy's original goals had been achieved, and now the academy would enter "phase two" of its development, with an expanded administrative team, including a new salaried "chief-executive-type position", which will be advertised next month.

"Every organisation can do better, without a doubt, and become more organised and professional. But the idea that we could do without an overarching organisation committed only to promoting the social sciences is misplaced."

Ms Craig, who had been director for 15 months, had not responded to The Times Higher 's requests for comment by the time the paper went to press.

Acting chair Miriam David, of Keele University, said: "The academy is in good financial health and is moving into its 'second stage of maturity'."

She said that Professor Forbes had resigned "slightly" before his full term "for reasons of work pressure" and had provided excellent leadership.

She added that the council had agreed "a new set of procedures and an administrative structure with a view to establishing our activities on a firmer footing".

The RGS declined to comment. John Benyon, the PSA treasurer, said that while the association was "impatient to see further developments" he felt the AcSS was an "excellent development", which needed greater financial support.

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