Don't play politics with academic freedom

By encouraging research on the "big society", the Arts and Humanities Research Council sets a danger

Last weekend the Observer broke a story that has exercised some academics for a while. The Arts and Humanities Research Council is encouraging and intending to support research on the "big society". In particular, they want academics to help "contextualise" ideas like selfishness, community, responsibility and so on to this end. The Observer claimed that the government pressurised the AHRC into this even to the point of threatening to reduce funding.

Anyone not familiar with the impact agenda (the policy of attempting to make academic research produce more social and economic impact), and its corrupting effect on the academy can be forgiven for assuming that political pressure would be needed to bring about this state of affairs. However, the relevant department, BIS, issued an unequivocal denial of any such coercion, and then the AHRC said that it "unconditonally and absolutely refutes [sic]" the suggestion that it took instructions from the government (many of us are also upset by the use of "refutes" to mean 'denies' or 'repudiates').

Instead it insisted that mention of the "big society" in its plans and funding schemes was very much its own idea. If this is true, and I think it is, it is even worse. The government may not be trying to impose a research agenda on academics, but the AHRC and the other research councils have been trying to do so for some time.

Let's be clear about the facts. The AHRC "Delivery Plan" is on their website. It mentions the "big society" five times and encourages academics to work on "connected communities" as one of its "highest priorities in the arts and humanities". After reading this document (a painful experience since it resounds with managerial blather - for example, the word "strategic" is used over and over again to convey very little of any substance) I challenged the chief executive of the AHRC about the inclusion of the "big society" at a meeting a couple of months ago. He seemed not to grasp that there was even an issue. He began by saying that the big society was about localism and empowering people and wondering how anyone could object to that.

I replied that the point was that they were publicising a particular political brand. He then said if I was just worried about the words "big society" that is 'just semantics'. Their spokesperson said, "you use the language the people you are talking to understand." Are we to suppose that ministers and civil servants can't understand concepts unless they are translated into the idioms of the "big society"?

I strongly suspect that BIS are telling the truth because the schemes and documents of the AHRC are so intellectually corrupt, and their architects are so lacking in critical consciousness that it is reasonable to imagine that when they realised they could rebrand their existing ideas in a way that they thought would please their political masters, they did so without hesitation. The question that ought to be addressed is when was it decided, and by whom, that arts and humanities academics should be working to improve community cohesion, rather than pursuing the intellectual agenda set by themselves and their peers around the world?

The principle at issue here would be exactly the same if we were talking about the "Third Way" instead of the "Big Society". Indeed, the story of the former is salutary. When Tony Blair was banging on about it, the sociologist and former LSE director Anthony Giddens was a kind of court social philosopher. Nothing very significant or enduring of an intellectual nature was produced and Giddens put the nail in the coffin of his big idea when he wrote about it in relation to a country not now in the news for reasons he predicted: "If Gaddafi is sincere about reform, as I think he is, Libya could end up as the Norway of North Africa." (Guardian, 9 March 2007). More recently another LSE director had to resign because of associations with the same regime, illustrating the dangers of the academy being seduced by material interests.

However, the precedent is now set for any future incoming administration to decree that its political brand should become a research priority. This is immensely damaging to our international reputation for intellectual excellence and integrity, and to democracy and the constitutional principle that to work for the state is not the same thing as to work for the government.

Those with strong stomachs may read for themselves the relevant materials on the AHRC website where they will discover Powerpoint presentations about "connectedness" and "visions for the future". Bullshit was described by Harry Frankfurt in his great essay on the subject as "a greater enemy of the truth than lies are". If only the AHRC would make eliminating it a strategic priority.

James Ladyman is professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.