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The Guardian/Observer ran a story this weekend about the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) being held "over a barrel" about its funding.  The AHRC was told by the governement in no uncertain terms that if it wanted to retain current funding levels (£100 million per annum), it was to spent a significant portion of that money on promoting research into the Big Society.  Under the previous legislature, the research councils had already been prompted to work with national research objectives set by government.  But David Willetts, minister for universities and sciences, latest move is holding the AHRC to ransom.  In the words of an Oxford don, who was quoted by the Guardian but who did not want to named: "With breathtaking speed, a slogan for one political party has become translated into a central intellectual agenda for the academy".  It's a decision that is on par with Soviet Russia sponsoring the writing of the history of Marxism. 

A rethink of what the Humanities are and do was of course long overdue.  All of the Humanities disciplines have a rich tradition of producing knowledge for their own sake -- and it needs to be said that if Humanities want to remain of value, they need to be able to continue to do so.  However, the Humanities are years behind in thinking about impact, about reaching beyond a tiny group of academics peers and graduate students, about creating knowledge that is just that bit more permanent and relevant.  Particularly English Studies has been at fault here. Over the past 30 years the discpline has retreated into an ivory tower of self-indulgent cleverness.  Ironically, the turn towards the political in criticism and theory that took place during this period has made things worse rather than better.  The claims made for the political relevance of literature are without a doubt important, but these are claims that rarely move outside of the theoretical realm.  Take the use of the word "radical" for example that appears so frequently in the titles of articles and conference papers.  What I ask myself is really so radical about interpreting a novel or a poem? Or theorizing it?

It is a sad situation that most academic criticism has zero-impact -- even though a lot of it is no doubt extremely good.  The impact agenda has been with us for only a very short time -- yet many academics continue to be slow to engage with the concept.  The response of many has been defensive.  About a year ago I overheard a conversation between two senior academics who remonstrated with some exasperation: "But it is through our teaching that we demonstrate impact".  Of course, it isn't. In spite of the valuable contribution that education makes to the socio-economic well-being of our society, the teaching that we do still rarely looks over the walls of the university, let alone beyond the horizons of our own discipline.

I don't quite understand why engaging with a wider audience is such an abominable idea.  I always imagine that colleagues in archaeology departments are dancing up and down with joy whenever a new episode of Time Team is aired.  For how come that a dusty, old, and highly specialist discipline such as archaeology can be turned into a popular TV series?  Why cannot we do this for our literary heritage?

Against this background, the government's interference with academic freedom is therefere an even greater cause for concern.   For it is the low impact rate of much humanities research that is being used, with cynical ingenuity, to give legitimacy to an ill-formed ideological idea.

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Comment by Wim Van Mierlo on April 1, 2011 at 17:45
The Big Society, the ARHC and the Elephant in the room: more voices joining the debate.  A blog by Paul Bennerworth on the LSE website.
Comment by Cathryn Setz on March 31, 2011 at 9:39

James makes a good point there, I think people are in danger of moral panic, especially when it comes to defending the validity of humanities research. But hang on there a sec, James, a guilt complex? This is not true, not helpful, and not the issue. The AHRC's rhetoric is.

Wim's criticism too, isn't it methodological, Wim? I mean, you don't like theory, or what you see as a rush to claim what we do is uncover 'radical' histories. You have a point, perhaps. But this is a separate issue to what's going on at the AHRC, isn't it?

The Observer clearly played a few bum notes with their piece, and it's easy to hate on the CiF trolls, the language, etc etc. Nevertheless, there is news there, and they're looking at it. But the AHRC's response is really quite strange. Have a look at Iain Pears' piece on this (his LRB piece is not out yet). He deconstructs for instance their use of the word 'refute' (i.e. strongly discourage) instead of 'reject', and their piecemeal manner of confronting the allegations, passing over the real problem: the preservation of the Haldane principle in British research funding.


Between 'Impact' and 'Big Society' lies the limply beating heart of this organ. If the battle is not about protecting this from ideological skewering, then where is it? We have to unite on this. Whether you see decency or ogreish life-sapping from the government, it is vital to question and try to understand what is happening here.


There is a petition to remove the "Big Society" mentions from the AHRC objectives document. You can sign it here

Comment by James Emmott on March 28, 2011 at 19:01
Comment by James Emmott on March 28, 2011 at 13:08


You are restating the Observer's inflated allegations as fact with no additional sourcing ('The AHRC was told by the government in no uncertain terms […] it was to spent a significant portion of [its] money on promoting research into the Big Society'; 'David Willetts […] is holding the AHRC to ransom' -- these claims are not substantiated by a shred of evidence, at least not presented in the article).

I'll come back to the article in a moment. For now, it seems that you are here conflating two issues: the direction of research by government (aka government interference in what research projects are funded by research councils), and impact.

In what follows I don't intend to blindly defend the current government, but we all know that they did not introduce the idea of impact, and, indeed, David Willetts is the one who delayed the REF in order that the issue and the mechanism of its demonstration could be clarified. Some say that as a result of this time for further consideration the idea should have been scrapped entirely, but I actually believe Willetts's explanation that he ended up being quite surprised at how well researchers presented the impact of their work. In fact, in a recent speech, he even singles out English Studies for special praise:

'I know there are some in academia who have fears about impact. I myself was a sceptic, for we must never jeopardise blue skies research. Indeed, one reason for the £5 million increase in the British Academy budget in the spending review was to boost fundamental research among the next generation of scholars.

'My own fear was that impact assessment would end up requiring clunky attempts to make impossible predictions about the impact of research activity. That's why I decided to delay the REF for a year for HEFCE to review its design, and decide how impact could best be assessed. HEFCE has since piloted it across several disciplines. The REF Panel on English Language and Literature was – by all accounts – one of the star turns in the pilot exercise. Indeed, the British Academy, the AHRC and the ESRC have each published excellent accounts of the impact of research in their fields.' (http://bit.ly/flXWIB)

I'm not suggesting we take Willetts absolutely at face value, but such comments do suggest that arts and humanities researchers have got themselves overly concerned about just how instrumental the demonstration of impact has needed to be. It turns out that our disciplines have simply said why they think our work is important, and the government have agreed.

There is a guilt complex about impact in arts and humanities -- we are worried that someone might find out that our research on (e.g.) obscure feminist poetry and psychoanalysis is pointless and should be defunded -- and this is unfortunate. Moreover, on the face of the evidence, we're performing these psychological contortions on ourselves. Our disciplines are telling the stories of our importance, and the government is saying, 'That's great!'. So why do we continue our handwringing? As you say, why is engaging with a wider audience such an abominable idea? I think the answer is that, paired with the disciplinary guilt complex, we tend to have an over-inflated sense of importance about our own work -- that what we are doing is so deep and difficult that no one could understand it. We mistake our work as being incompatible with insidious bureaucratic notions like the quantification of impact, and we think that bodies like the government are bound not to be on our side. Well, no one is asking us to quantify our work, and it turns out that when we stop and think about how to make the case for its importance, people agree, and the government actually is on our side! So I agree with you. We need to think more about how to demonstrate why what we do is so crucial.

It is possible to dispatch the Observer's weakly sourced, disingenuous article fairly quickly. Alice Bell asks on Twitter: is the Observer article simply gossip? Answer from Steven Hill, Head of RCUK Strategy Unit (in other words, a source in a position to know) is very simple: Yes (http://bit.ly/fNHKtk). It's a shame the Observer didn't reach out to him for a comment, but the article wouldn't have been as effective in frothing up its loyal anti-coalition readership.

We need to pick our battles. This isn't one of them, in my opinion.

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