Friday, 1 April 2011

Willetts Speaks; so does the AHRC

David Willetts, Minister in charge of Britain’s universities, commented on the AHRC affair in a written answer to the House of Commons.

The Labour MP Tristram Hunt had also tabled a question, but this was not called. Willetts instead answered a friendly lob from his own side, a gentle question posed by Julian Huppert, a Liberal Democrat member of the coalition who has been tweeting recently to publicise the AHRC’s defence.

Huppert’s question was an invitation for Willetts to ignore the substantial issue, and Willetts duly accepted. He reiterated the AHRC’s response that it had not been pressured by the government to include the “Big Society agenda” as a research priority. Apart from the Observer, however, no-one has ever said it had been. He did not deal with the question of whether it was appropriate for a research council to align itself so closely to party doctrine; nor did he mention the very real pressure that was put on the British Academy to abandon its highly effective small research grants.

Separately, the AHRC itself has decided to go for the same tactic. Research Fortnight quotes an email exchange with the AHRC head, Rick Rylance, saying it will not consider removing the "Big Society" from its delivery plan. Like Mr Willetts, he concentrated on the "confusion" caused by the Observer article which, he implied, was the only reason there had been protests.

He also said that the "Big Society was not a research priority."

It is hard to see how this statement can be made. The BIS booklet (Allocation of Science and Research funding) specifically states "AHRC will direct a significant part of its funding into six strategic areas:... communities and big society..."

It continues: "AHRC will systematically address issues relating to social cohesion, community engagement and cultural renewal contributing to the "Big Society" initiative."

-- Iain Pears

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