That AHRC/Haldane dust-up, in chronological order

The humanities fishbowl has been fizzy since Sunday over hotly denied allegations that the Government has been telling the AHRC what to think (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here, and don’t come back till you’re confused and crying slightly).

Usually, when my students come to me with arguments in this state, I suggest they try rearranging them in chronological order to see if that helps. Applying this approach, we get the following…

2009: earliest discussion of Connected Communities I can readily find. It’s still vestigial in this RCUK annual report and THE reporting, as one of three intended cross-RCUK programmes, alongside food supply and economic slump-survival measures.

11 May 2010: after an exciting few days during which Peter Hennessy frequently appears to be the only person alive who knows what the hell’s supposed to happen next, it is affirmed that the people campaigning on Big Society rhetoric (hereafter “BS”) are approximately in charge of the country.

June 2010: Connected Communities inaugurated.

28-29 June: AHRC holds a workshop meeting to guide the focus of its Connected Communities effort. The presentation by Bert Provan of the DCLG is framed around snippets from Cameron speeches.

November 2010: call for scoping studies applications for Connected Communities. This is a general RCUK call, described as AHRC-led. It contains a muted, brief reference to studies which might “explore the possible lessons that could be drawn for” the BS “and/or” other social initiatives, including some (co-operativism?) obviously distinct from the BS vision.

6-8 December 2010: AHRC holds another workshop meeting under the Connecting Communities banner. One of the four invited presentations strongly invokes and appears to promote BS rhetoric and concepts; see Naomi O’Leary’s comments on what’s going on with the others.

December 2010: BIS Statement on the Allocation of Science and Research Funding, including the “Statement on the Haldane Principle.”

December 2010: AHRC launches its Delivery Plan 2011-15. This states that “Connected Communities will enable the AHRC to contribute [sic] to the government’s [sic] initiatives on localism and the ‘Big Society’” in broadcasting, urban regeneration, heritage, history and “Values and concepts”. Elsewhere it states that the Council “will contribute to public services and policy, collaborating with other [sic] government departments”, including DCLG on BS.

It was at this point that we should probably have flung the lid off the world and started jabbering like maniacs.

Yes, of course, the Haldane Principle is not all that, and all research is intrinsically political. The BS, though, is party-political. It was the Conservatives’ chief rhetorical device in the election campaign, and is still the only conspicuous indicator of Cameronic political allegiance. Only Cameron-friendly Conservatives want it or like it or will give it house room. Which is in no way a case against it, but which is as sure as flip a case for not making it a criterion for Research Council support. It’s bleeding obvious how to direct people’s attention to the BS without telling them what to think about it. You use something like the wording from that November call. Which they must have had on file, but didn’t use. Which scares me.

Also – the AHRC is not a government department, as those in charge of it surely know full well. This is why I think these Delivery Plans and Strategic Briefings and whatnot ought to have named authors.

However: I, for one, said nothing about that blessed document. Because I didn’t notice it.

January 2011: Peter Mandler did notice, and complained.

27 March 2011: the Observer publishes a piece entitled Academic fury over order to study the big society. This quotes Peter Mandler as stating categorically that the Government threatened to withhold funding unless funds were diverted to BS, implying that the AHRC was acting under duress. [UPDATE: Peter Mandler has commented explaining that claims he actually made concerning the British Academy, rather than the AHRC, were misreported.]

(The only sources for this new assertion are the quotation attributed to Mandler, plus one weasel passive: “It is claimed…” Comments from others – Colin Jones, Tristram Hunt, Gareth Thomas, an unnamed Oxford college “principal” – are presented so as to appear to relate to the new claim, though they could equally be responses to established developments.)

It was only at this point that the lid actually did come off the world and everyone started jabbering like a maniac.

28 March 2011: the AHRC takes the unprecedented step of posting what it describes as an Important Statement on its website, directly responding to the allegations: “We did NOT receive our funding settlement on condition that we supported the ‘Big Society’, and we were NOT instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced.” This notes that work on Connecting Communities began “in 2008”, and argues that the programme “happen[s] to be relevant to debates about the ‘Big Society’ which came two years later.”

This is then followed up by a story in the THE in which an unnamed AHRC spokesperson adds that references to the BS in documentation are merely a device to (THE paraphrase) “help policymakers understand the concept of Connected Communities.”

29 March 2011: sporadic skirmishes. Thom Brooks sets up a petition to delete BS from the list of “strategic areas”. Bert Provan on his way to becoming a national figure, if the humanities are a nation.

As ever, what people make of all this comes down to who gets in quickly with their preferred framing (‘framing’, there: one of the select supply of little bits of terminology which look like humanities cobblers but actually do something fantastically useful). There is a framing doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment which reduces in essence to this:

(a) the Observer article said a bad thing about the AHRC;

(b) the Observer article is wrong;

therefore

(c) the AHRC is not at all bad.

If I believed in neat conspiracies, I’d be invoking Father Brown here: “They would have boomed the miracle. Then they would have bust up the miracle…” There are no neat conspiracies, of course: the whole thing probably just proceeds from a ghastly error of fact or judgment on someone or other’s part, as is usual for the human race, though at an intellectual level I would be most interested in exactly how the first few pars of the Observer piece came about.

More important is the fact that everyone who bats for My Lot is now having to rush around nailing into place the alternative framing:

(a) the Observer article said that the AHRC’s enthusiastic co-option of a party-political principle was instituted under duress from the Government;

(b) the Observer article is, probably, wrong;

therefore

(c) the AHRC has presumably co-opted a party-political principle of its own free corporate will. (Its statement gives no alternative explanation.)

My professional experience tells me that the second formulation better addresses the evidence of the historical record. (It’s also probably much sounder syllogistically, though I’d want to ask a logician.) Is anybody going to fund me (or my logician) if we keep insisting on pointing this out?

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18 Responses to That AHRC/Haldane dust-up, in chronological order

  1. So, being awkward, you’re happy for a government to provide the AHRC with direction provided the direction is not “party political”?

    Can that hold? Labour provided plenty of direction. For example, it largely got us out of agricultural research and into climate research. Is the view that climate change is more important than food supply anything but a political decision? If so, in what sense is it not “party political”? And is what we’ve seen here really so very different – apart from the fact that most academics don’t vote Conservative?

    • James says:

      This certainly does deserve discussion. The simple answer (to the opening) is “in many cases, no”. Trying to work out what boundaries can and should apply to governments’ inevitable influence on the organization of scholarly research is a very complex question. Which is why I want to differentiate it from the specific business of the BS stuff in the Delivery Plan, which is a very simple “Sorry, what? What the heck are you doing that for? Stop it!” non-question.

      I’m not a fan of the drive towards grand strategies, ring-fencing and winner-picking in the humanities in general. I believe that if letting scholars set their own priorities leads sometimes to self-indulgence, telling them their priorities leads far more reliably to vacuous prose-puddings glued together with dried tears by the professionally disappointed. I should say that my experience extends only to the humanities, and that I’ve not achieved anything like the number of grant successes, let alone the number of failures, that would make me an expert on this one.

      Thus, I’m uneasy with both the pre- and post-election incarnations of Connected Communities. But most of what has been proposed – that November call I mentioned, or the relevant section in the ESRC’s Strategic Plan – is less bad than what the AHRC told us to do in January. I’m no lover of noncommittal language as a rule, but its effect in the former specs is to create a gap big enough to let various things through, probably up to and including scholarship.

      Also, such schemes might be politicised, but they don’t necessarily tell the punters their politics. You could be a committed Conservative, perhaps with a Ferguson-style neocon research drive, and have a chance of getting a project through some of the loosely Labour-directed initiatives; come to that, you could be a Labourite (or an anarcho-syndicalist) and have a hope with November’s RCUK scoping study call. What’s extraordinary about the AHRC Delivery Plan is that it tells us that it’s going to privilege one party’s main electoral device.

      Dr Brooks must have had the same idea when he set up the petition: “Research councils should not direct funding to strategic areas which overlap with any political party’s slogans. We would have been equally opposed to ‘The Third Way’ becoming a strategic area for research funding shortly after the 1997 election.” I might add that I’d be similarly dissatisfied if they told me to build the socialist alternative, or make Scotland better, or restore emergency facilities at Kidderminster Hospital.

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  3. Peter Mandler says:

    Thanks for this very lucid and accurate exposition of the story so far.

    I can clear up one point. The Observer misquoted me on the direct political pressure applied to the AHRC – I was referring to direct pressure from BIS that I believe was applied to the British Academy, 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 and the AHRC. I don’t know whether there was direct pressure applied to the AHRC – possibly there was – or possibly they don’t need to be pressured any longer.

    But I hope this doesn’t obscure the larger point, which is the progressive incursion both of government policy priorities and of its ‘economic growth’ strategy into areas of humanities research funding which, a. can’t, and b. shouldn’t contribute to these things. This is amply evidenced in the BIS research plan and the AHRC delivery plan which I quoted extensively in my original blog post. In the AHRC delivery plan there are five references to the Big Society, including a pledge to ‘contribute to the government’s
    initiatives on localism and the Big Society’, ‘focus on issues such as the Big Society’, ‘the contribution of AHRC plans to the Big Society agenda’, ‘In line with the government’s Big Society agenda’. As Iain Pears points out in a recent blog post, the ESRC – whose research presumably *could* contribute to the Big Society – doesn’t see the need to cater thus (cf. its own delivery plan, with one, much more guarded reference to Big Sociey debates). Why does the AHRC?

    But the issue is much bigger – how far should the paymaster call the tune for universities? This needs a debate with lots of sides to it, including the AHRC’s, which may now be materializing.

    • James says:

      Many thanks for your clarification, Peter. I thought it would probably be something like that. Good point re ESRC (here’s the link to the blog post in question).

      Note To World! You see that bit in the original posting where I very, very carefully avoided taking the reported speech in the Obs article at face value, to avoid the risk of adding to the confusion? That’s a transferrable skill, that is. I learned it mainly by studying eighteenth-century encyclopaedias and husbandry manuals. No joke. I can, if you like, write you an Impact Statement of a couple of thousand words or so detailing exactly how this can possibly be the case… or I can go and do something useful instead. Up to you, really.

    • Phil Ward says:

      Thanks for this, Peter. Interestingly, no one seems to have picked up on your allegation about BIS pressure on the BA. Does this still stand? If so, why has the BA and/or BIS not responded?

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  7. Thom Brooks says:

    Many thanks for this history and noting the petition. This petition has now secured nearly 1,200 in less than 24 hours.

  8. Tim Hitchcock says:

    Thanks for putting this timeline together. I think it is a dose of clear writing in a sea of obfuscation and hyperbole. For me, the simple issue is that an organisation that used to represent the community to government (through the subject panels of the AHRB); now forms a part of government. You can dress this up as a shift in the Haldane Principle, though my reading is that British HE and the system of research funding has been directly manipulated by government for party political purposes since at least the ‘white heat of technology’, and the creation of the plate glass sector. But given the evolution of the AHRC into something different, the real challenge is for traditional scholarly organisations to step up and start doing their job of representing their communities. While the AHRC may have behaved badly (and its choice of language was silly if nothing worse), organisations such as the Royal Historical Society (and Professor Mandler is a Vice President) need to find a better way to both consult the scholarly community, and represent that community to those charged with negotiating and describing national policy. Sensationalist journalism is counter productive – and allowing oneself to be mis-represented in it, is a fault.

    Let’s have a public workshop on the Haldane Principle; let’s look at the effect of small grants vs large thematic ones; let’s interrogate notions of ‘impact; let’s find a voice and venue.

    What we cannot afford to do is to bring into question the essential probity of the those charged with managing the RCUK side of this equation. In doing so, we effectively close down discussion in favour of name calling, and close off one of the few ways forward.

    • Abandon Hope says:

      The ‘essential probity’ of those involved in RCUK has been challenged by Iain Pears and by Stefan Collini. I note that Sir Rick Trainor, whose record at King’s College London shows that he has a peculiar sense of the meaning of ‘consultation’ and a command of spin, is on the Council of the AHRC. For the AHRC to rely on an anonymous spokesman, rather than to issue a signed statement, does not inspire confidence.

    • James says:

      I’m putting together another posting on this, which I hope to have ready tomorrow. The first of April is a bad day to be discussing this stuff, although Iain Pears is keeping us updated.

      Tim: agreed on nearly all points, but do you suggest that people representing the RHS (and other learned societies) shouldn’t talk to the press at all? Talking to the press means accepting that a predetermined central narrative will probably dominate how your voice is used; that conventions on representing direct speech are less rigorous than ours; and that the piece will reach its final form through being subbed by someone with no direct knowledge of the case. The only way to be sure of not replicating what happened in Peter Mandler’s case is to avoid that channel completely. Is this wise? (Genuine question.)

      I agree that we could use more clarity on the BA story. Iain Pears’ link above states that HMG leant on the Academy to kill off the Small Grants Research scheme. (Which is “thought to duplicate forms of research support provided from within universities’ own budgets.” Who do I write to to say “Stop! There’s been a terrible mistake! It doesn’t!”?) My guess is that the Obs took this (non-BS) element and quietly tucked it into a BS narrative, doing moderate violence to Professor Mandler’s reported speech in the process.

      As to probity questions: no protest based on this incident and seeking the censure or dismissal of an individual or individuals has any chance of getting anywhere at all, as far as I can see. See also Iain Pears’s Wednesday posting on this.

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  10. Rob D P says:

    Do also see Iain Pears’ counterpunch on his blog, where he makes a similar point: that the problem is the AHRC bending over backwards of its own volition, rather than that it is coerced.

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