In a responsive mood

Apologies to anyone on tenterhooks waiting for me to discuss the Joule paddle-wheel experiment in more detail, but this AHRC/Big Society thing seems to be the only game in town at the moment. Where were we?

Three frames and counting

I mentioned last time that the evidence on Connected Communities, and the unravelling of the Observer article, have been framed in two distinct ways. Of course, the Obs piece itself, while drawing on different and discredited evidence, created a framing of its own. This framing, which started multiplying in the wild ahead of both the others, says:

The Nasty Government Did A Bad Thing!

As discursive frames go, this is a design classic. It roars like a Tyrannosaurus rex. Which is bad news, because tyrannosaurs roar very impressively in your head and not at all in reality. Cleaving loudly to this position will have no practical effect whatsoever (in the present instance. There have been plenty of situations in world history where “The Nasty Government Did A Bad Thing!” has made a positive contribution. No trace of any such situation is showing up anywhere on this here radar set).

To recap, the three frames in order of appearance are

Frame 1: The Nasty Government Did A Bad Thing! (b/w: The Haldane Principle Is Under Threat!)

Frame 2: Pointless self-appointed intellectuals give themselves a fit of the vapours over some story that the Government Did A Bad Thing. Ha ha: it’s all nonsense, as they’d have realised if they weren’t lolling about reciting Swinburne at each other all day.

Frame 3: Via confused newspaper story alleging unlikely problem, attention focuses on well-attested and comparably serious problem: lone Research Council unilaterally punts Conservative Party electoral slogan to scholarly community; has also seemingly forgotten difference between quango and Government department.

Each is more nuanced than the last – and of less interest to the casual reader. Here’s the charming little irony. Frame 3 would never have got into the general press. It would not have formed a rallying-point for academics unaided: Peter Mandler published essentially its case on the Humanities Matter blog back in January, and got very little response. Most of us didn’t see the Delivery Plan. Most of us wanted not to see the Delivery Plan.

If the well-reasoned arguments now being expressed get anywhere, via the petition or otherwise, it will – I’m afraid – be partly on account of the first two framings. Frame 1 lacks any thought, but it makes your brain scream “THINK!”; Frame 2 absolutely demanded a response, because it could not be allowed to stand. Several bright sparks, indeed, were onto it before it had time to crystallise. The first deconstruction I saw, by Mike Otsuka, appeared at 10.44am the same day the AHRC rebuttal appeared.

As with any decent historical case study, my timeline listing novelties is deceptively neat. Staring at Twitter reveals that Frame 1 is still occasionally popping up anew, usually – though not always – with Frame 2 trotting along behind it. I promise not to keep reducing everything to Father Brown parallels, but I can’t help thinking of the scandal which was unleashed upon that cleric by an overzealous newsman and retracted a mere half-hour later, far too late. In the world’s presses and rumour-mills, the “two Father Browns chase each other round the world for ever; the first a shameless criminal fleeing from justice; the second a martyr broken by slander, in a halo of rehabilitation.” The real Father Brown, who does not much resemble either, has no place in popular discourse.

The reality of the AHRC/BS flap, as expressed in Frame 3, is doing somewhat better, though there are clearly some venues where it isn’t welcome. More on that below. (Yes, I am telling you what to think, though only in my capacity as an objective observer of the documentary evidence with no possible axe to grind. You are taking everything I say at face value, aren’t you?… What? Oh well, worth a try.)

Wot hav happened so far

Thanks to the several people who wrote to say they found my previous piece informative/measured/funny. (The last is a strategic device, of course. If you want to write about something as teratogenically tedious as research council funding priorities, at length, and are not prepared to rant impressively, your best chance of holding the reader is through the expectation of a good outré adverb or nigel molesworth reference in the next par.)

I started looking more deeply into the unfolding process mainly for my own enlightenment, before realising that writing it up might actually itself serve as a very modest case study in why letting humanities scholars study interesting things at will is actually quite a good idea.

Here, then, I’ve continued the record, with all the attempts to define the course of the AHRC-BS controversy I can find, up to the end of yesterday. I probably won’t be doing likewise for future dates, because the very specific focus on this silly and sorry episode is in danger of becoming counterproductive. The more astute of the good guys have already spotted that we need to articulate what it is that we want instead: a more responsive and bullshit-averse funding mentality, acknowledging that (a) the arts and humanities can only do what the arts and humanities can do, and (b) this is enough. If this means less opportunities for jokes, so be it.

Anyway. Let’s go right the way back to Monday, 28 March, which was the occasion of two significant pieces I managed to miss last time. Clive Barnett takes an outsider’s perspective: looks sceptically at the Observer piece and wonders why people are rushing to believe it, and why we didn’t say anything in January when the Delivery Plan was publicly available. Can’t really fault him on any of that. With a few notable exceptions, we have been collectively rather stupid about the whole agenda. Don’t be stupid, folks: it’s stupid.

Secondly, James Gordon Finlayson was among the early architects of Frame 3, and I think the first to publicly use the word “craven” to describe the AHRC’s co-option of BS. The adjective has been nominated independently by at least a couple of others, and I’m embarrassed I didn’t spot it myself during my trip to the armoury. It fits with a perfection that makes you want to hug the English language.

Incidentally, co-option is not by its nature craven. The key difference between the ESRC’s Delivery Plan and the AHRC’s is that the one co-opts, whereas the other co-opts cravenly. The ESRC’s is significantly the more professional document, and is something we ought to worry about. The AHRC’s is not worrying, in that you don’t call it “worrying” if a chimpanzee steals your shoe and throws it in the sea (though you’re still a shoe down on the transaction).

29 March: Naomi O’Leary does some forensics on the published evidence of how BS-think soaked into the fabric of Connected Communities, and mixes it with interesting polemic (I’d hold back from some of this: do we know Hartley was flown from Queensland?) Concludes that the AHRC should be scrapped and replaced with a more direct funding distribution system based on peer review.

How would this work in practice? Probably as something more like the old AHRB system, with more autonomous Subject Panels. This would tend to ensure more appropriate use of any funding that’s already secured from Government, but raises the question of who would bargain for future funding and how. Somebody has to co-ordinate all the Government liaison, the review process, and the distribution.

Actually abolishing the AHRC would presumably entail shuffling much of this across to the British Academy (unless anyone wants to promote a replacement quango, manifesting its break-from-the-past credentials through some abysmally nuanced name such as “Research Consortium for the Humanities and Arts”, and a new and worse logo? Thought not). Shuffling anything from anywhere to anywhere gives various agencies opportunities to perform what Sir Arthur Gappy memorably described as “the snatching-away of the money substances”. Personally, I’m in the “Wouldn’t it be quicker and easier to mend the AHRC?” lobby.

Meanwhile, just as everyone else finally reads the AHRC Delivery Plan and comprehends what the fuss is all about, this turns up. I swear black and blue to you that this is not just me hiding behind a hastily invented persona to ramp up the evidence for Frame 2. (I’d have got the taking-the-piss-out-of-the-humanities cliché right, for a start. “[M]asturbation in Wuthering Heights” is no good: you’re supposed to invoke an analytical approach, and there must be more incongruity between the two elements. “Narratives of the hypermodern in Ivor the Engine” is a well-formed and suitably tedious example. See?)

Incidentally, the comments section on the Times Higher online piece which filled up around this time is notably less inane than usual, despite an excursion into Different Ways To Misunderstand The Sokal Hoax. There’s even a decent explanation (“kathz”, 29 March) of why the “refute” business is worth picking up on.

30 March: big guns coming out now. James Ladyman on a New Statesman blog gives a good summary of Frame 3, from the top down, for clots who don’t kno about it. More from Iain Pears. Points out that the AHRC’s most likely move is to “go silent”. If the Council is seen to accept the logic of our petition, this embarrasses it in the eyes of the Government and, on one interpretation of the rules of the game, has to entail the resignation of the Chief Executive.

This is what happens, you see. You try to fix your vision on scholarly ideals and find that you are in fact looking down the barrel of the question “Here Is An Individual, Rick Rylance By Name. Do You Want His Head On A Plate: Yes Or No?”

Even articulating such questions, whatever answer you have in mind, makes you enemies and gives some bystanders the impression that you’re not quite our kind, dear. Despite what several generations of campus novelists will tell you, a lot of us are not trained in this stuff, and find it profoundly upsetting at times. We should neither pretend otherwise nor retreat from it.

My answer, by the way: said plated head would be of very little use that I can see. The AHRC BS thing demonstrates a ground-in failure of corporate will, and you can’t fix that by making an example of someone.

Actually, you know what I’d love? I’d love it if everyone at the AHRC stayed where they were and issued a statement reading “Sorry! You’re quite right, that was a bit cretinous of us. Give us till the end of April and we’ll sort it out.” Then kept us waiting till June, but eventually did revise the plan in good faith. That, you see, is the kind of behaviour most academics can relate to.

Diana from History Workshop focuses on our great delay: “I admit that I sat in a meeting about the document in January, groaned, and thought no more about it.” I’d have done the same myself. A comment from ‘Felix’ emphasises that AHRC policymakers actually have to do the job of appealing to government, which we don’t: in striving to keep HMG and us happy, they’re caught between a rock and a soft place. Too many of us are forgetting this. But I wouldn’t go as far saying the Delivery Plan “makes a lot of sense”, what with the cravenness and everything.

Paul Myerscough in the LRB blog points out that those at the AHRC who chose to embrace the BS are scholars too; concludes that humanities academia is “a community divided against itself as never before”. I don’t buy this. If you look at the footwork of his argument, there’s some rather odd conflation going on between the observation that RCs recruit executives from inside the academy, and a standard and not greatly relevant point about grant-hunting cynicism. Evidence from the public debate rather suggests that things are moving in the opposite direction: the humanities community has been uncommonly united since around the time the “impact” crap blew up.

31 March: print edition of the Times Higher, with a brief and Frame-2ish version in the weekly roundup. There is, however, a letter from Bob Brecher including the word “craven”.

Now, a print publication like the Times Higher may have lead times of a couple of days. Most of this stuff, however, is online and pretty instantaneous. I think that, given all the above – particularly Dr Ladyman’s contribution – it’s fair to decree that from this point forward, anyone with pretensions to informed engagement who tries any Frame 2 malarkey is either not up to the job, or trying to pull the wool. Agreed? OK: on we go.

The LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog is nice about me, thus outing me as an interested party trying to pull wires. Damn. (‘Haldanegate’, incidentally, was coined by a more consummate wire-puller who remains at liberty.) One of few sources to cover the point that the AHRC’s Delivery Plan is not even a particularly good piece of cynical subservience.

Again, let’s compare the ESRC. The ESRC may be telling the Government what it wants to hear; the AHRC is telling the Conservatives what they said during the election campaign. There was surely at least a finite risk that they would respond that they could remember perfectly well what they’d said, and didn’t want to pay for it again. See also another point from Iain Pears: there are many good reasons why BS-talk might not run the length of the present administration. Suffusing it through your plan for the years to 2015 is not great cynicism, as cynicism goes.

Also in this posting, another mention of the BA thing, which does need to be cleared up, and which I’ve addressed in a comment.

1 April: Yeah, I know. Another advantage of having this dust-up in January would have been that I wouldn’t now be reading each and every story three times over to check it isn’t bylined to an anagram and contains nothing about the community values of bloody spaghetti-growers.

First up, Iain Pears is on the case, as ever: there have been Questions In The House! Well, a question, with a written answer. Julian Huppert and David Willetts batted Frames 1 to 2 about and came to the predestined conclusion and decided we could all go home. If you’ve read this far, you could have drafted the non-answer to the non-question yourself, although I hope you wouldn’t have perpetrated that number-concord snafu in the final par.

This is, of course, what you get in parliamentary politics. You’d be mad to imagine they’d have done anything else. Moaning about the chicanery is like blaming your greengrocer for ignoring the state of the Research Councils entirely and trying to sell you cabbage (except that there is nutrition in cabbage). Still, it comes across as distinctly cheeky. I wanted to shout “Hoi! I can see exactly what you’re up to!”

AHRC brass have not, in fact, been able to activate silent running, and have thus resorted to the second option on Iain Pears’ list from his earlier posting. (In a grim way, this is surprisingly fun, isn’t it? My Lot get to write both sides of the script! What shall we get the Other Lot to do next, folks? Fifty points to anyone who can work in an exciting chase sequence involving a Sikorsky helicopter. More down-to-earth is Richard Baron’s option, but it seems they didn’t fancy it, or didn’t see it in time.)

Instead, Professor Rylance gives an interview with Research Fortnight’s daily news service in which he gives an interesting clarification of the 2011-15 Delivery Plan. Please compare.

Delivery Plan: “Connected Communities will enable the AHRC to contribute to the government’s initiatives on localism and the ‘Big Society’…”

Professor Rylance: “This paragraph does not say that the Big Society is a research priority. It simply says these are the ways in which Connected Communities research could contribute…”

Emphasis mine, of course. Scholars of taste and character should read the Delivery Plan in full, and clock whether I’m quoting out of context or using boldface to devious ends. Similarly, “Connected Communities is entirely separate from the Big Society.” True in a hair-splitting procedural sense. Practically, Connected Communities was pretty nebulous till the change of government, and remarkably suffused with BS rhetoric (and, granted, not much less nebulous) thereafter.

Some people have been rumbling that the AHRC is not so much dangerously compromised, as a little bit silly and not altogether able to express itself by recourse to the English language. Maybe there’s a bit of both. And I don’t see that the fact that one’s not acceptable means that the other is.

Meanwhile, that LSE blog has a contribution from Paul Benneworth. As usual with opinion coming not quite from inside our particular tent, it’s a rewarding read. States that the existence of a fully fledged RC for the As and Hs has drastically increased their institutional status, and therefore the routine supply of funding, as compared to the 1990s situation. Unfortunately, the figures he gives are not comparable, and I’ve not got time to go digging around for better ones now.

The growth of “strategic” ring-fencing, changes in discipline coverage, and FEC have presumably all influenced the relationship between the Council’s total funding and the likelihood of any individual academic getting a responsive grant for a decent idea. Anecdotal evidence suggests that we never quite had the bonanza implied by this story, but that things have been rather better for some time now than they were for some time before that. Needs looking into. Properly. With spreadsheets.

At 18:30 the same day, we deployed the C-bomb. Stefan Collini in the Guardian’s online opinion-piece thing: four paras of Frame 3, then onto what I believe we should designate the Serious Stuff:

The problem pre-dates the coalition. For some years now, governments have been insisting that research councils allocate less and less of their funding in “responsive” mode – ie by choosing from among the strongest applications they receive from academics – and focus more and more of it on themes that can be made to seem to contribute to “growth” or to “competitiveness” or whatever other reductive aim currently enjoys political currency.

Some important words, there, and the most important among them is seem. The interesting thing about high-impact economically targeted world-leading synergistic innovation research strategies in the arts and humanities, is that they’re bollocks. We can duck the question of whether implementing such strategies is a moral duty or morally abhorrent: they can’t be implemented. You can try. You’ll get a maze of aspirational language (the seemingness in question), then a few slightly silly contended concrete examples. All will disappear off the face of the Earth when your funding cycle comes to an end and nobody renews your website.

Responsive funding is great! Responsive funding is great mainly for what it’s not. Responsive funding is not a system of giving pointless aesthetes as much money as possible to spend on whatever they like. Rather, given efficient peer review, it’s a system that targets the funding into precisely those areas where proposals that are witless or woolly or counterproductive or cranky get noticed and get swatted back for revision or immolation.

Yes, I know. “Given efficient peer review.” You could power a thrusting Fraunhofer-Institut off our collective output of ignorant-bloody-reviewer stories. But it is often done well (a fact we tend to forget, as recollections of the one unidentified imbecile who didn’t understand “long nineteenth century” or denied outright the possibility of an alveolar fricative crowd our minds). It can be done well because it allows subject communities (which may overlap) to build organically from their established expertise. Who will give meaningful decisions on whether our proposals “contribute to the government’s initiatives on localism and the ‘Big Society’”? Remember, you’ve only got the Peer Review College to play with. And not even all of them any more.

What I can’t find is an original source for a line Collini attributes to Rick Rylance: “scare-mongering and critique of the impact agenda are pointless”. I wonder what the context was for this. Let’s not worry about scaremongering, which is actually a highly effective if rather unpleasant strategy. Critiquing the impact agenda is our job, and is another area we need to shift this conversation towards.

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2 Responses to In a responsive mood

  1. James says:

    Changed my mind. I’m going to add an update: Daniel Boffey of the Observer, who is (or whose subeditor is) responsible for both the early momentum and the early mistakes, has a follow-up piece based on the protest letter.

    Basically on the side of the angels, but (as it currently stands) mangled to the point where a line from the protest letter is attributed to… Professor Rick Rylance. I think this backs up my interpretation of the first Obs snafu.

    The alphabetical list of signatories to the protest letter seems to be missing H to Z. I wouldn’t be on it anyway, I’m afraid, as I didn’t see the call for signatures in time. The 2300+ signatures on the petition are probably a better guide to scale of support.

  2. Pingback: Making sense of AHRC/Big Society ‘controversy’ | Pop Theory

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