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