“I recently wrote a post for the blog “Humanities Matter” drawing attention to what I felt was a new level of government influence over the funding of humanities research, as evidenced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ research allocation for 2011-14. An article by Iain Pears in the London Review of Books came to very similar conclusions, and last week The Observer picked up the story.
In its report, The Observer focused on the conspicuous presence of the government’s “Big Society” agenda in one of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s highest-priority “strategic research areas”. In addition to the deepening convergence between BIS priorities and the AHRC’s delivery plan, I cited evidence to The Observer that direct government pressure had been placed on the British Academy to adopt its “national priorities” or lose funding (see my letter to its leader, Sir Adam Roberts, published in Times Higher Education on 10 March and as yet unanswered). But I did not assert that the coalition had directly instructed the AHRC to embrace the Big Society, and the AHRC has firmly denied receiving any such direct instructions.
Fortunately, this confusion has not obscured the bigger issue, which is now being debated widely in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media: to what extent should the government be able to dictate priorities for humanities research?
At one level, of course, the government is responsible. Both of the dual funding streams – quality-related grant distributed via the Higher Education Funding Council for England and other bodies, and postgraduate and project funding through the likes of the AHRC and the British Academy – are supplied with public money, for which the government is accountable. But there is a rich and valuable tradition in this country of public funding for sensitive areas relating to news, the arts, education and the like – where free expression is at stake, and where public expenditure is meant to sustain a diversity of views – being held at arm’s length from the state.”