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"Observergate" and academic freedom

It's time for the AHRC to remove all reference to the "Big Society" from its documents.

The "Observergate" saga began with an essay published in the Observer on 27th March that included the claim that political pressure was exerted upon the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to include the "Big Society" in its funding plans. It was claimed that inclusion was even "non-negotiable". This was met with a strong denial by the AHRC. It claimed that no such pressure existed and that its "Connected Communities" research theme - one of its six areas for strategic research funding priority - had been agreed long before the last general election. The denial was very specific: there was no pressure on the AHRC to adopt any particular research theme.

My concern was that this denial did not extend to a fundamental issue reported by the Observer: should the political party campaign slogans be included within research council funding documents? The AHRC nowhere denies the repeated mention of the "Big Society" in its current delivery plan. This plan states that its "Connected Communities" research theme will "enable the AHRC to contribute to the government's initiatives on localism and the 'Big Society'" (sect. 2.4.4). The AHRC delivery plan also states that it aspires to make a "contribution" to "the 'Big Society' agenda" (sects. 3.10, 3.12). The "Big Society" is mentioned five times in total.

If we believe the AHRC and reject allegations of political interference, there remain significant concerns with regard to the decision to include the "Big Society" within the delivery plan and especially as an illustration for where funding for a strategic research funding priority area might be directed. It has been revealing that such a concern went unnoticed both in the original decision to include the "Big Society" in its delivery plans and its response to the Observer.

This situation led me to draft a petition on behalf of fellow members of the AHRC Peer Review College, AHRC funding applicants, and others with an interest in AHRC activities in response. The petition is based upon a position of principle, not politics: research councils should not direct funding to strategic areas which overlap with any political party slogans. This is not a petition against the "Big Society" but against political campaign slogans becoming incorporated in funding documents spelling out funding priorities. The petition clearly states that we would all have equally opposed the "Third Way" receiving the same attention after the 1997 election: this is not at all a comment on government policy, but on the inclusion of party slogans in research council delivery plans. We have called upon the AHRC to remove all references to the "Big Society" in its delivery plan with immediate effect.

The petition attracted over 1,000 signatures in less than 24 hours with more than 3,000 at present and growing. Those who have signed the petition come from across political and disciplinary divides and include fellow members of the AHRC Peer Review College, Fellows of the British Academy and Royal Society, Fellows of the Royal Historical Society, the Academy of Social Sciences, and many other learned societies demonstrating clear and widespread support.

Some may argue the petition's success is based upon a mistake or that it wrongly accepts a contested allegation. However, the petition does not take issue with what the AHRC contests (e.g., the allegation of political interference). Moreover, the petition is not critical of the "Connected Communities" theme nor does it reject the idea of a "Big Society". There need not be any opposition to colleagues seeking to conduct research into the "Big Society" within the "Connected Communities" theme. Academic freedom is to be protected. This is precisely why we should unite to oppose the AHRC's decision to illustrate how funding applicants might successfully contribute to the "Connected Communities" research through research related to the "Big Society". This is a mistake. If this matter were left unchallenged, then the possibility would arise that the use of including political party campaign slogans within research funding delivery plans might become more common. Some may argue that we must speak the language of our politicians to best demonstrate the "impact" and funding importance in this age of austerity. Our response should be that inclusion of political party campaign slogans is a move too far. The ability to communicate our funding priorities need not rely on explicitly linking them with such slogans.

I emphasize that the petition is based upon principle, not politics. No matter our political or disciplinary differences we can unite around the idea that political party campaign slogans have no place in research council funding documents spelling out strategic priorities. The AHRC can address this satisfactorily by immediately removing all references to the "Big Society" in current and future documentations. We should constructively support the AHRC to make the right decision and enact this important change. This might better enable a positive platform from which we may join together in defence of the arts and humanities. Failing to do so would be to choose both a failure of principle and furthering unnecessary division at the worst possible time. If the AHRC is correct to claim mention of the "Big Society" in its delivery plan is trivial, then it should hasten its removal from all research funding documents rather than delay.

Thom Brooks is Reader in Political and Legal Philosophy at Newcastle University. He is a member of the AHRC Peer Review College and author of the petition to end inclusion of the "Big Society" in the AHRC's delivery plans.