I was going to blog about this Observer article earlier today, under a title along the lines of "Government significantly improves the relevance of my research into the pressures placed on Third Reich academics". The gist of the article is that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) had been coerced into making research on the "Big Society" a priority, in order to secure funding. If true this would be utterly reprehensible, starting universities down a path to becoming little more than Conservative Party think tanks (as if that wasn't enough of a problem already).
As it happens, the AHRC has issued a statement rebutting the claims. Their position is that there was a pre-existing programme of research into a related area, and that although any conclusions from this now have increased relevance to current government policy, funding for individual research will continue to be decided by peer review based on its quality:
The AHRC has been working for over two years, since 2008, with four other research councils, on the Connected Communities Research Programme which has been developed through extensive – and continuing – consultation with researchers. At the core of this Programme is research to understand the changing nature of communities in their historical and cultural contexts, and the value of communities in sustaining and enhancing our quality of life. These issues are serious and of major concern. They also happen to be relevant to debates about the ‘Big Society’ which came two years later. To imply that these important areas for investigation constitute a government-directed research programme is false.
I'm not prepared to breathe too huge a sigh of relief. As Iain Pears explained in an excellent piece earlier this month, there are still plenty of reasons to be concerned about the preservation of independence in academic research. Even if this particular claim turns out to be unfounded, there still remain other hoops that applicants for funding need to jump through, including proving the 'impact' of the work (particularly difficult to prove when the research hasn't been done yet and won't be read by anyone for another four years). With so little funding now available, there is an enormous amount of pressure to make proposed research sound as relevant and economically beneficial as possible.*
What I have been seeing in my own research (funded by the AHRC) into historians and non-fiction publishing in the Third Reich, is that censorship and suppression were by no means the only ways by which Nazi ideology gained respectability as areas of academic consensus. Funding was made available for researchers to find evidence for and 'prove' the regime's foregone conclusions. By shifting the focus of research in a few small ways, academics in all manner of fields - from anthropology to Ancient Greek archaeology - could retain their status and funding, meaning that even the most seemingly apolitical papers would lend their support to the regime, and to its main goal of creating a "people's" or "racial" community (Volksgemeinschaft) in which all Germans would work together to reverse Germany's social degeneration.
Godwin's Law makes it tricky to invoke a comparison with the Nazis and still be taken seriously, and I'm wary of sounding more than a little hysterical in my concluding sentence. The fact is that every time I hear "Broken Britain" and "Big Society", I'm reminded of the ongoing debate about the role of the Volksgemeinschaft ideal in securing support for the Nazi regime, and this latest suggestion of academic meddling rang all too true as a result.
*It's difficult to say that in a way that makes it clear why this is not a good thing. Basically, if the benefits of the research are that obvious from the outset, there are chances of funding from private sources. AHRC funding should be for projects which fill a gap in current research, the impact of which we won't necessarily know until it's been completed (and will be tricky to quantify even then).
EDIT: Iain Pears has posted more on this topic today: http://boonery.blogspot.com/2011/03/ahrc-observer-and-mr-haldanes-principle.html