A NEWCASTLE University professor could lead a walkout from a higher education research council over allegations that academics are being pressured into research projects promoting the Government’s Big Society policy.
Philosophy professor Thom Brooks says more than 30 professors could quit their roles as peer reviewers for the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), having failed to reverse its decision through emails and a petition.
Prof Brooks is unhappy that the AHRC referred directly to the Big Society on six occasions in its strategy lining up potential arts and humanities projects for the next five years.
He says encouraging research into a “political campaign slogan” erodes the longstanding political independence of research funds, though the Council argues it is merely using a term in “common use” as a suggestion for possible topics.
The idea of the Big Society was a key feature of the Conservative manifesto last year, a strategy to “take power away from politicians and give it to people”.
Prof Brooks said: “Political campaign slogans have no place in strategic delivery plans for organisations such as these. We would have been equally opposed had research been suggested into Labour’s ‘third way’ ideology back in 1997.
“It’s not merely an idea. It’s cemented to this political ideological campaign slogan.
“Its basic principles haven’t even been spelled out as an idea, never mind a white paper.
“We’re not saying people shouldn’t do research on the Big Society, rather that it shouldn’t be a strategic priority.
“I think mass resignation should be a last resort. It’s not something that should be taken lightly but it’s hard to see what else we can do.”
The AHRC – which manages a £102m budget for research funds – has already been sent a petition signed by around 4,000 academics and 30 learned societies objecting to the inclusion of the term in the Connected Communities research programme, a project being handled by five of the seven research councils to explore the nature of communities and suggest methods of improvement.
AHRC chief executive Rick Rylance argued the phrase has spread beyond its political roots, and “stood for a range of issues across party lines”. He also added projects were not solely approved by the Government or the AHRC, but by a group of three peer reviewers of relevant experience.
Shadow universities minister Gareth Thomas has demanded to see documentation of talks between the AHRC and the Universities Minister’s office to determine if there was any Government influence, an accusation which the AHRC strongly denies.
A spokesman for the AHRC said: “At no point do we ever say we’re propagandising it. The whole point of research is to come to something cold. You could get 100 projects critiquing it or 100 saying it’s a brilliant idea. Politics is not what we’re about. It’s just shorthand.
“We’re not defining the concept at all. That’s up to the academic to suggest. We’re not putting constraints on anything.”