He that toucheth pitch …

The story so far. The Observer run a piece entitled ‘Academic fury over order to study the big society’ which starts off

Academics will study the “big society” as a priority, following a deal with the government to secure funding from cuts.

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 …

Cue a great deal of angry comment about the dirigiste ambitions of our paymasters (not to mention comparisons with Stalinist direction of research in the eastern block).

Cue in turn a vigorous if not entirely literate rebuttal from the AHRC:

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) unconditionally and absolutely refutes the allegations reported in the Observer … We did NOT receive our funding settlement on condition that we supported the ‘Big Society’, and we were NOT instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced by BIS or anyone else into support for this initiative.

Ok, suppose that they’ve not been coerced. Still, off their own bat, they seem to have rather enthusiastically gone along with talk of the Big Society. Far from keeping at arms length from the passing whims of a making-it-up-as-they-go-along government, the AHRC’s Delivery Plan 2011-15 repeatedly refers to the Big Society (you can search the PDF). Thus …

The contribution of AHRC plans to the ‘Big Society’ agenda are described in section 2 …

In line with the Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda … the AHRC will continue to support …

And so on. Their website also hosts a document called ‘Connected Communities OR “Building the Big Society”’ quite explicitly headlining quotes from Cameron.

A spokesman rather pathetically says that the delivery plan had referred to the Big Society ‘to help policymakers understand the concept of Connected Communities’. Really? And are we really to believe that the connected communities project would be looking just the same if Labour were still in power?

I’ve not myself had direct dealings with AHRC apparatchiks (except for a storm in a teacup over some past remarks on this blog, which didn’t impress me). But those I know who are rather closer to such things, at one level or another, have often expressed exasperation or contempt. I’ve heard few good words. And the recent chatter on facebook and twitter and in comment threads suggests that, very widely, the AHRC is indeed held in pretty low esteem.

Now that might, for all I really know, be all terribly unfair (I’ve better things to do than spend a lot of time thinking about the AHRC, the REF, and the likes). Maybe the AHRC really are trying to make the best of a bad job, without undue pandering to their political masters. Maybe. Let’s be really charitable (humour me!). But still, how can the AHRC apparatchiks not know how very low — unfairly or otherwise — their standing is among the academics whose interests (or at least, the interests of whose subjects) they are supposed to serve? And if they do know, how can they not have realized that spattering talk about the Big Society through their documents would only serve — unfairly or otherwise — to confirm the prejudices of all those who already are primed to regard them as toadying third-raters with brains addled by management-speak? Only by being politically dim to a rather staggering degree.

So even taking the most charitable line (which to be honest I don’t), this doesn’t bode too well for us.

PS: I’ve just noted that the always estimable Iain Pears has added his thoughtful two-pennyworth on all this.

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