Peter Mandler, on the AHRC “Big Society diktat” hysteria, and the dubious Observer report that started it…

The Observer misquoted me on the direct political pressure applied to the AHRC [Arts & Humanities Research Council] – I was referring to direct pressure from BIS [Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] that I believe was applied to the British Academy [responsible for postdoctoral humanities research grants], but all references to the BA had to be cut in the final draft (because of extended coverage of the demonstration) and the reporter conflated my references to the BA [British Academy] and the AHRC [Arts & Humanities Research Council]. I don’t know whether there was direct pressure applied to the AHRC [ my emphasis ]…”

This is how The Observer initially presented the ‘story’…

“Academics will study the “big society” as a priority, following a deal with the government to secure funding from cuts. […] The director of research at Cambridge University’s history faculty, Professor Peter Mandler, told the Observer that the AHRC was forced to accept the change by officials working for the minister for higher education, David Willetts, regarded as one of the intellectual driving forces behind the “big society”.”

Given the fact that the AHRC “unconditionally and absolutely refutes the allegations”, the above clear evidence of slipshod ‘journalism’, plus the fact that the claims just don’t stand up when you look at the AHRC Delivery Plan 2011-2015 — then the AHRC protests start to look more like a desperate Guardianista psychodrama than actual grounded protest.

If there was indeed — as Mandler now claims — pressure of some sort put on the British Academy by higher education “officials” to steer post-PhD research funds in the humanities toward a government agenda, then I’d like to see evidence of it. One has to wonder, though, why the government would be quite so concerned with such an arcane cranny of academia in the face of the national crisis. Only around 90 grants are given annually by The British Academy. And the closest its latest priorities statement comes to the Big Society is…

“Ensuring that fellowship awards [research grants] take account of, but are not wholly determined by, the need to contribute to a wide range of national and international challenges (e.g. environmental issues)”

That hardly sounds like a dictatorial decree to researchers to go out and big up the Big Society.

And as I’ve said earlier, even if there has been some political nudging of the AHRC behind the scenes, it’s clear that Labour was getting implicitly political research priorities set for the AHRC from 2005 onwards, when no-one raised a squeak about alignment of research strands with national policy concerns. Back in the 2008-2011 AHRC research priority list, for instance, there’s one which runs in a very Big Society-ish manner thus…

“Enhancing the role that communities play in underpinning economic regeneration and improving quality of life”

It’s difficult to see the AHRC’s current Connecting Communities strand as much more than an extension of that.