U.K. Research Politicisation or Rubbish Reporting? Possibly Both

This Tweet attracted my attention over the weekend, as regular readers might imagine:

(That looks nice, I must do that more often…)

What does this fellow mean?  He links to an Observer article on the Guardian’s website.  The article contains the quote mentioned in the Tweet.  In this article the author alleges that the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the U.K. (AHRC) is now required to research the ‘big society’ – a slogan/program fancied by the current Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition in the U.K. (though it may be more Prime Minister Cameron’s pet project than an official coalition thing).  Furthermore, the article alleges that the Haldane principle, the U.K. name for the practice of letting researchers (via review panels) determine what projects are funded rather than granting councils (like the AHRC) has been violated.

Putting aside the notion – well articulated by Edgerton – that the Haldane Principle is a bit of a fiction, this would seem to be a significant break from past practice of how the U.K. government interacts with the researchers it funds.

The problem – this article is full of claims and assertions, and too thin on facts or links to supporting documents to successfully make its case.

Unfortunately, an informal scan of Twitter related to this article suggests that the worst case is finding inference in blogs and other reporting (U.K. folks interested in science and research policy are much more plugged into Twitter, certainly accounting for population, than we Yanks).  The piece is overstating its case, and in a political climate where researchers and students feel threatened by the U.K. government’s austerity measures, many are ready to think the worst.

There’s already an official response from the AHRC, which sheds some light on why the Guardian thinks the sky may be falling (H/T U.K. Science Chief Sir John Beddington).

“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 [the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills] or anyone else into support for this initiative.”

The vigor of some of the quotes in the Observer article suggest the AHRC statement won’t mollify them.

Part of the blurry line business involved in conducting social science and humanities research is that such work can find itself in political situations even when they are not seeking to inform policy choices.  In this case, the AHRC program at issue pre-dates the emergence of the ‘Big Society’ as a campaign/policy issue (boldface mine).

“The AHRC has been working for over two years, since 2008, with four other research councils, on the Connected Communities Research Programme which has been developed through extensive – and continuing – consultation with researchers. At the core of this Programme is research to understand the changing nature of communities in their historical and cultural contexts, and the value of communities in sustaining and enhancing our quality of life. These issues are serious and of major concern. They also happen to be relevant to debates about the ‘Big Society’ which came two years later. To imply that these important areas for investigation constitute a government-directed research programme is false.

Absent any evidence of the alleged direction from the U.K. government, the Observer piece is little more than implications and extrapolations.  To look for the kinds of problems alleged in the piece makes sense.  But you need some evidence.  And it would really, really help if someone produced the document that everyone is agitated about.  I agree with the AHRC on this point:

“If there is evidence to demonstrate these allegations (as distinct from relying on phrases like ‘the word is’) then it should be revealed.”

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One thought on “U.K. Research Politicisation or Rubbish Reporting? Possibly Both

  1. Pingback: State of the Art in Assessing Research Impact | csid

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