Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Who decides what topics we should research?

This is a simple question with a simple answer. The researcher should decide what topics he/she wishes to research. End of story!

However, the world we live in is not a simple place, with the result that my simple idealistic idea seems to work less and less well. As an example of this, the last few days have seen some highly entertaining squabbling in the press (Guardian Education and Times Higher Education, both in the last week) over claims that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has been heavily leaned on by the Government. Allegedly, in order to avoid massive cuts to its research budget (possibly as much as £100 million), AHRC has been 'persuaded' to designate research on the so called 'Big Society' - the Government's big idea - as one of their top priorities. Understandably, this has given rise to a great deal of sound and fury, with at least one leading academic resigning from the AHRC Council in protest.

In the past, there was supposedly a bit more separation between Government and researchers, in that while Government provided the funds, the Research Councils were able to select the projects to be funded without Government interference - this was the so called Haldane principle. To be fair, this never worked perfectly, but it probably helped to preserve researcher autonomy to have this arms-length principle in place. Now it seems to have been abandoned (the Government says 'modified').

In practice, despite the current controversy, real change on the ground may well be less than Ministers might like. Why is this?

First, lots of existing and prospective AHRC research may already fall under the 'Big Society' umbrella, or could easily do so with a little creative re-labelling. Likewise, people submitting applications for research funding can 'bend' what they propose to make it sound like 'Big Society' research, and everyone will be happy. The AHRC itself has stated that in discussing research with Government it is important to use 'language that policymakers understand', and their use of the Government's terminology is in line with that viewpoint.

Second, it seems to me that neither Government nor AHRC nor the researcher community really has the faintest idea what 'Big Society' research ought to look like, or even what the term itself actually means. That being so, almost anything can be deemed to belong to the 'Big Society' agenda, and no doubt will be. This might sound a bit sneaky or even dishonest, but it's not really. For part of the research programme, surely, will be precisely to define what the Big Society is or could be, so at least initially it's perfectly legitimate to allow the notion to be interpreted quite flexibly.

Third, after a time Government attention will shift elsewhere. Either Ministers will decide they know enough about the Big Society or they might conclude that it's not such a great idea after all. Or more likely, they will simply latch onto some other idea and focus on that for a while. Meanwhile, AHRC will no longer find itself under such an awkward spotlight, and can go on supporting whatever good research appeals to it.

The wider issue that this current controversy highlights has to do with how far researchers can or should be fully independent of Government influence. This has always been a tricky issue, despite the Haldane principle, especially in areas where proposed research might be applied or link into policy concerns. Government always has the option, either directly or through the Research Councils, of funding research in certain areas of topical interest, and researchers can then choose whether or not to apply for a tranche of such programme funding. This is common practice and seems to work well - and I have been a beneficiary of the process when the ESRC in the 1990s ran programmes to support research on the transition economies of Eastern Europe. One can question whether such directed funding is the best way to get good research done, but at least here the individual researchers are free to decide whether to apply or not - no one compels them to do so. And these programmes have always run alongside responsive mode funding, in which researchers can propose to do any research they like, and they get funded if their proposal is considered sufficiently promising and original.

Given this sort of model, the latest AHRC squabble seems more like a storm in a teacup, and doesn't seem to go too far down the road of compromising researcher autonomy or independence. Researchers can still largely choose what they want to study, either individually or as part of a team, and that is as it should be.

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