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I only read this article this morning, like everybody else, but it didn't
seem like news. The AHRC has been engaging these issues for many months,
even years.

Some of the current research agenda predates the last election whilst some
has clearly been driven by new political realities. I am not an apologist
for the AHRC's apparent subservience to its political masters but I think,
mindful I may be trashed by some, the Observer piece is overstating things.

Firstly, the AHRC has not been discussing anything called the "big society".
They would find the term hilarious, as we do. What it has been doing, like
the other research councils, is responding to the impact agenda (initiated
by the previous government) and recognising that the AHRC might make hay
where some other knowledge domains could struggle. The arts, in particular,
are traditionally very outward looking. In the arts audiences are at the
centre of our thinking and exchange through the knowledge economy is innate.
This is something that in other areas can seem abstract or even alien. The
AHRC have recognised this and are explicitly pursuing these opportunities.
It was not an accident that RCUK appointed the head of the AHRC to lead on
the impact agenda. That was prior to the last election.

Secondly, there has been a relaxing, over the past year, in some of the more
instrumentalist directives being passed down from the Department for
Business, Innovation and Skills (responsible for HE and research). Mandleson
was a micromanager who wished to stamp his own preferences across the
sector, especially in research. Cable and Willetts are not much of a double
act and have buckets of blood on their hands, but they are actually more
hands off (although the bloodstains are showing).

Thirdly, we should look at what the AHRC is prioritising, rather than solely
relying on the Observer for our information. The AHRC has four highlight
themes which articulate their priorities and encourage the sort of research
they want to see happening. These themes have been in the public domain for
many months. This doesn't mean that other research isn't funded. Funding is
decided by the Peer Review College and Peer Review Panels and these are
composed of the same academics who are applying for the funds. They
interpret the themes how they will, or choose to ignore them.

The themes include "Care for the Future". This is possibly the closest of
the themes to the Big Society concept - except that if you visit the AHRC
site http://www.ahrc.ac.uk you see this isn't what it's about but, rather,
more conventional humanities research priorities such as conservation,
interpretation and heritage. That said, terms such as "trust" and
"philanthropy" appear in the texts. These could be seen to echo government
ideology. However, this also relates to concepts such as "connected
communities", which is a narrative with communitarian characteristics - not
a direction the current government is likely to want to go in.

The second theme is "Digital Transformations", which seems a fantastic theme
and directly relevant to many members on this list. This theme ranges from
looking at how digital technology affects the way we do research and
understand things through to how the digital is transforming the world with
new communication systems and subsequent globalisation. Again, it allows
both the epistemological and ontological dimensions of the social to be
explored.

The third theme is "Translating Cultures" which, to some degree, is a
hangover from the previous strategic focus of RCUK on internationalisation.
That was driven, in part, by governmental concern over cultural conflict as
evidenced, at its most extreme, in terrorist activity. From shortly after
9/11 the research councils have been engaging these themes as strategically
important, as the governments of the day sought to understand what was going
on. The rhetoric of the "War on Terror" is now history, it's primary
evangelists gone from the world-stage. But the theme hangs on, morphing into
a broader engagement with issues around globalisation and potential
conflict. It needs to be unpacked.

The last theme is "Science in Culture". To some degree the discussion on
CRUMB this month (as well as WDL) has been engaging this topic, seeking to
apprehend how scientific thought and methods can be disruptive, reconciled
or even exploited, in various humanistic intellectual domains. It could be
interpreted as instrumentalist but equally, like the first theme, as
engaging traditional concerns in the field, not out of scope of C.P. Snow's
famous observations.

All of these themes engage what the AHRC is calling "Connected Communities"
and, again, I would suggest that this is generally intended in a
non-instrumental manner to mean an engagement with our collective and
individual ontologies as we and the world are transformed. We are living,
arguably, in a period of particularly rapid change, with tectonic shifts in
economic and cultural power not seen for perhaps centuries (as power rapidly
moves East). I understand all these themes within that framework.

If one is paranoid then it would be possible to read all of the themes
described above as government meddling in academic freedom. I have some
sympathy with that view. But the government doesn't have that kind of reach
into academia. The universities that run the UK academic system are mostly
large and ancient institutions, slow moving strategic units and part of a
global structure of such institutions. The forces and agencies that act
through this system are too complex for governments to have too greater
affect, negative or otherwise. The various agendas of the research councils
largely derive from this context, not from government diktat, regardless of
what government might seek. Cable and Willetts would love to have the
influence the Observer grants them.

Best

Simon


On 27/03/2011 12:47, "Honor Harger" <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> Hi all,
> 
> I don't want to derail the current discussion,
> but today's news about the new priorities the UK
> Government have set the Arts and Humanities
> Research Council (AHRC) - who distribute research
> funding within UK Universities -  does seem
> rather pertinent to many on the list.
> 
> For those of you who haven't heard, the AHRC have
> been asked to commit substantial research funds
> into studying the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat
> Government's flagship policy idea, "The Big
> Society", in exchange for the ring-fencing of the
> AHRC budget.
> 
> The Observer report on this story here: http://v.gd/haldane
> 
> "The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
> will spend a "significant" amount of its funding
> on the prime minister's vision for the country,
> after a government "clarification" of the Haldane
> principle - a convention that for 90 years has
> protected the right of academics to decide where
> research funds should be spent. Under the revised
> principle, research bodies must work to the
> government's national objectives [...] It is
> claimed the AHRC was told that research into the
> "big society" was non-negotiable if it wished to
> maintain its funding at 100m a year."
> 
> The erosion of the Haldane principle has stark
> implications for everyone who is involved in, or
> effected by, University research. If the Observer
> report is accurate, this is, in my view,
> transparently chilling, and it is no surprise
> that several commentators, and academics, have
> started darkly murmuring:
> 
> "Who controls the past", ran the Party slogan,
> "controls the future: who controls the present
> controls the past."
> 
> As many of you are in academia in the UK, and
> some of you are in receipt of AHRC funding, I
> wonder what your reaction to this is?  Have your
> universities informed you of this news?  Have
> their been any internal briefings?
> 
> I'd be very curios to know.
> 
> With all best wishes,
> 
> Honor Harger
> 
> PS.  On a lighter note, there's some lovely,
> playful deconstructions of this very disturbing
> development, on Twitter right now. For those of
> you who have Twitter accounts, you might be
> interested in following this hashtag:
> #bigsocietyresearchproposals
> 
> Here's some of the recent gems:
> 
> '"A depraved taste for equality", de Tocqueville
> and the founding principles of the Big Society'
> 
> "Big Society of the Spectacle: Guy Debord's
> influence on policymakers, politicians, and the
> public."
> 
> "The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe: The
> Tragedy of Uncontrolled Immigration in Fantasy
> Fiction
> 
> "The Notorious B.I.G. Society: the influence of
> East Coast hip-hop culture on Conservative policy
> (1992-2011)"
> --
> . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
> 
> honor harger
> 
> present location: brighton, .uk
> 
> email: [log in to unmask]
> sms: +44 7765834272
> 
> 
> -> w o r k
> director of lighthouse: http://www.lighthouse.org.uk
> 
> -> b l o g
> particle decelerator: http://decelerator.blogspot.com/
> 
> - > b l a g
> twitter: http://twitter.com/honorharger
> 
> -> l i s t e n
> radio astronomy: http://www.radio-astronomy.net
> 
> -> w e b
> bio: http://www.radioqualia.net/honor
> 


Simon Biggs
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http://www.littlepig.org.uk/

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http://www.elmcip.net/
http://www.eca.ac.uk/circle/