I recently wrote a post for the blog "Humanities Matter" drawing attention to what I felt was a new level of government influence over the funding of humanities research, as evidenced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' research allocation for 2011-14. An article by Iain Pears in the London Review of Books came to very similar conclusions, and last week The Observer picked up the story.
In its report, The Observer focused on the conspicuous presence of the government's "Big Society" agenda in one of the Arts and Humanities Research Council's highest-priority "strategic research areas". In addition to the deepening convergence between BIS priorities and the AHRC's delivery plan, I cited evidence to The Observer that direct government pressure had been placed on the British Academy to adopt its "national priorities" or lose funding (see my letter to its leader, Sir Adam Roberts, published in Times Higher Education on 10 March and as yet unanswered). But I did not assert that the coalition had directly instructed the AHRC to embrace the Big Society, and the AHRC has firmly denied receiving any such direct instructions.
Fortunately, this confusion has not obscured the bigger issue, which is now being debated widely in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media: to what extent should the government be able to dictate priorities for humanities research?
At one level, of course, the government is responsible. Both of the dual funding streams - quality-related grant distributed via the Higher Education Funding Council for England and other bodies, and postgraduate and project funding through the likes of the AHRC and the British Academy - are supplied with public money, for which the government is accountable. But there is a rich and valuable tradition in this country of public funding for sensitive areas relating to news, the arts, education and the like - where free expression is at stake, and where public expenditure is meant to sustain a diversity of views - being held at arm's length from the state.
When the government tries to lean on the BBC, the Arts Council or the national museums, both statute and convention can be used to defend their independence. Universities, too, have such defences. Hefce's independence is, somewhat precariously, enshrined in statute. The research councils are not so independent, but the Haldane principle has been used in a rough-and-ready way (by scientists mostly) to beat off government attempts to micromanage research budgets.
Until recently, humanities research funds were so meagre and seemingly so remote from day-to-day policy concerns that there was little to fight about. Over the past ten years, however, humanities funders have earned bigger settlements, thus drawing closer to ministers and their policy imperatives.
This Faustian bargain grew more fraught when universities were taken into BIS - the top priority of which is not education - and it has become more onerous still as the budgets shrink, as we try to cling to what we have, and as the government becomes more exigent about what it wants from public expenditure.
This is the origin of the current concerns. The BIS statement set out "key national strategic priorities" for the allocation of research funds, but left it to funding bodies to determine the specific projects to fund "within these priorities". Responding to The Observer report, a BIS spokesperson deadpanned: "Prioritisation of an individual research council's spending within its allocation is not a decision for ministers" - but the fact is that ministers have already established those priorities in making the allocation.
Just how far humanities funders must go to meet these priorities is unclear - and to be fair, funders are sometimes intentionally vague to allow everyone some wiggle room. There is evidence that the British Academy was strong-armed into dropping its small-grants scheme - an inexpensive and highly valued scheme giving seedcorn grants to researchers working on their own agendas and not government "priorities" - and channelling its funds into postdoctoral fellowships, "a majority" of which are expected to be devoted to "national priorities" and other "challenges".
Concern about the AHRC has focused on the fact that its delivery plan pledges several times to "contribute" to "the government's 'Big Society' agenda". To me, the question is not only why the AHRC has so explicitly embraced that particular party-political slogan - as Iain Pears notes, the Economic and Social Research Council, which is much closer to this agenda, has been far more reticent (while finding other ways to satisfy the government). It is also how far the government's "key national strategic priorities" have permeated and should permeate the research programmes of humanities researchers, whose primary responsibility must be to the free and critical exploration of the world's cultures.