26 April 2011

On Bullshit, the Big Society and Other Bollocks

By Gordon Finlayson

“One of the most salient features of our culture” observed the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt “is that there is so much bullshit.” Frankfurt advances a theory. The bullshitter’s statements reflect his indifference to the matter of their truth or falsity. That makes his deception distinct from, and in one respect worse than the liar’s. For the liar, who intends to deceive by presenting as true what he knows to be false, honours the truth in his own perverse way. Frankfurt observes that the realms of advertising and indeed “the closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” Politicians are prone to bullshit because they are required to have opinions about things they don’t know, and because they often say things merely for effect. Bullshit is among their chief weapons of mass distraction.

Recently 28 learned societies and subject associations signed a letter calling for the removal of the mention of “The Big Society” from the ‘delivery plan’ of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), on the grounds that research funds should not be hijacked by Government initiatives, let alone party political ones. Let’s call it the BS initiative – an acronym apparently not spotted by its architects.

[See the full article at Discussion Point: http://www.discussion-point.com/ArticlePage/article/bs-big-society]


01 April 2011

Burying the Haldane Principle

Andrew Chitty argues that The Coalition Government has not only traduced the Haldane Principle, but has now more or less openly politicized the field of University Research through its influence (tacit or explicit) on the Research Councils.

The Haldane Principle is the principle that researchers (or the research community) rather than politicians should decide where research funds should be spent, therefore that the Research Councils that make decisions about funding should be autonomous from political control.

The progressive instrumentalisation of Higher Education under New Labour led to serious concerns that the government was abandoning the Haldane Principle. See for example Philip Moriarty's article 'Reclaiming academia from post-academia' (Nature Nanotechnology, 2008). By contrast at first the Conservative Liberal Democrat Coalition gave the impression that they were reaffirming the Principle. In his first keynote speech as Minister for Universities and Science in May 2010 David Willetts said "I support the Haldane principle and a stable framework for the science and research budget. They give freedom to academics and make this country a prized destination for international talent."

Furthermore, following consultations, BIS went on to produce a 'clarification' of the Principle as the appendix to its document 'The Allocation of Science and Research Funding', published in December 2010. Most of this appendix was anodyne, stating for example on the one hand that "Ministers should not decide which individual projects should be funded nor which researchers should receive the money", but on the other that "there are decisions that ultimately must be for Ministers, albeit informed by external advice; these include the overall size of the funding for science and research and its distribution between the Research Councils …". But there were two interesting points in it. First, it defined the Haldane Principle very narrowly:

The Haldane Principle means that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review. [My emphasis - AC]
Traditionally the Haldane Principle has been understood to mean much more than this: that decisions on which areas of research to fund should be taken by researchers themselves. Second, the appendix went on to address this question of areas of research as follows:
In addition, every Government will have some key national strategic priorities such as addressing the challenges of an ageing population, energy supply or climate change. The research base has an important role to play in addressing such priorities and the Research Councils, with the support of independent advice, have proposed research programmes to tackle them. It is also appropriate for Ministers to ask Research Councils to consider how best they can contribute to these priorities, without crowding out other areas of their missions. But it is for the Research Councils to decide on the specific projects and people to fund within these priorities, free from Ministerial interference.
The gist of this paragraph is clearly that it is legitimate for the government to indicate to the Research Councils what it considers to be 'key national strategic priorities' and to expect the Research Councils to allocate a proportion of their funds addressing them.

This itself is strictly speaking a derogation from the Haldane Principle as traditionally understood. But if we look further into the BIS document it appears that the government has gone much further than indicating 'key national strategic priorities' in influencing - in one way or another - the allocation of Research Councils' funding. I take three examples from two Research Councils.

First, from the ESRC. The BIS document says that:
ESRC has developed a focused investment strategy for the coming period, which will centre its investment around three newly defined national priority areas which are critical to the UK economy and society. They are:
- Economic Performance and Sustainable Growth
- Influencing Behaviour and Informing Interventions
- A Vibrant and Fair Society
Let us look at the second of these priority areas, 'Influencing Behaviour and Informing Interventions'. The ESRC Delivery Plan for 2011-15, also published in December 2010, states that the aim of this area is "creating a better understanding of how and why people and organisations make decisions, and how these can be managed or influenced". It goes on to talk about investigating "how interventions can promote a beneficial change in the behaviour of citizens", "how people and groups might respond to different information and interventions" and "the appropriate role of public policy in terms of coercion through legislation, persuasion via incentives or social marketing, or coherent combinations of approaches".

All this is suspiciously reminiscent of the so-called 'Nudge Unit' set up by Downing Street to investigate ways of getting people to behave better through environmental signals, following David Cameron's enthusiasm for this idea (see for example 'David Cameron's "nudge unit" aims to improve economic behaviour', Guardian, 9 September 2010, and 'Nudge unit: how the Government wants to change the way we think', Belfast Telegraph, 3 January 2011). In fact the 'social marketing' referred to in the last quote above is in effect an earlier version of 'nudge theory' (see Spotlight on Social Marketing #3: Behavioural Economics, Bristol Social Marketing Centre).

The suspicions increase if we compare the following pair of sentences:

From the home page of Richard Thaler, the Chicago initiator of 'nudge theory': "[Thaler] investigates the implications of relaxing the standard economic assumption that everyone in the economy is rational and selfish, instead entertaining the possibility that some of the agents in the economy are sometimes human."

From the ESRC Delivery Plan: "Many recent government policies have assumed that people will rationally make the 'right' decisions when given better information on climate change, diet, or financial instruments but this approach has clear limitations."

What is going on here? It looks very much as if the ESRC has either succumbed to political pressure to direct funding into research that will support the 'nudge' idea, or else has independently decided to direct funding in this way in the hope that the government will look kindly on it in making decisions about its own future funding. Either way we have a practice that deviates radically even from the BIS document's diluted version of the Haldane Principle. For developing 'nudge theory' is by no stretch of the imagination a "key national strategic priority", on a par with "addressing the challenges of an ageing population, energy supply or climate change". Rather it is a pet idea of David Cameron's.

Second, from the AHRC. The BIS document tells us that: that among the "highest priorities in arts and humanities" are "communities and big society" and goes on to say:
A major thread of activity will be focused on communities, including leading the cross-Council 'Connected Communities' programme. AHRC will systematically address issues relating to social cohesion, community engagement and cultural renewal contributing to the 'Big Society' initiative.
If we look at the AHRC's Delivery Plan for 2011-2015, also published in December 2010, we find four mentions of the Big Society. One speaks of 'the contribution of AHRC plans to the "Big Society" agenda', while the most extensive says that the Connected Communities programme (which has been running for some time) will 'enable the AHRC to contribute to the government's initiatives on localism and the "Big Society"' in a number of areas. To take one of these areas:
Values and concepts: recent speeches on the 'Big Society' have made use of key behavioural or evaluative concepts that can be difficult to pin down such as fairness, engagement, responsibility, mutuality, individualism, selfishness. In addition key related ideas are frequently used by proponents: liberty, trust, civility, justice, citizenship and common interest. Research clarifies and contextualises these.
Again, it looks as though either the AHRC has been leaned on to fund research that will 'contribute to the Big Society agenda' or it has decided to fund such research itself in the hope of gaining favour with the government. Again, either way this deviates from the BIS document's statement of the Haldane Principle, for the 'Big Society' is not a 'key national strategic priority'. Rather it is another idea embraced by David Cameron, albeit one which he has made a central plank of the policy of his party.

The waters around the AHRC's funding of the Big Society have been somewhat muddied by an Observer article last Sunday. For, apart from reporting the strong reactions of academics to the fact that the AHRC had directed research funds to advancing the Big Society idea, the article also claimed that the government had explicitly told the AHRC that "research into the 'big society' was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year". On Monday the AHRC issued an 'Important statement' that hotly denied this particular claim:
We did NOT receive our funding settlement on condition that we supported the 'Big Society', and we were NOT instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced by BIS or anyone else into support for this initiative.
On Monday an AHRC spokesman also said in a THE piece that "the [AHRC] delivery plan had referred to the Big Society to help policymakers understand the concept of Connected Communities":
"You use the language the people you are talking to understand," he said. "People think this means we are going to have more and more control from the centre, but we don't see that at all. We are doing our damndest to make sure everything remains at arm's length because that is how it should be."
The response to these two points by the AHRC is rather obvious. Political influence over the AHRC's decisions does not have to take the form of direct threats by the government to withdraw funding; all it needs is that the AHRC's decisions are designed to pander to the government's wishes so as to prevent such a withdrawal. And the AHRC Delivery Plan in fact does much more than use the Big Society idea to help politicians understand an already existing programme; it explicitly reorients that programme in the direction of the Big Society. Hence the Delivery Plan's all-too-frank reference to "the contribution of AHRC plans to the 'Big Society' agenda".

Third, the ESRC again. Let's look back at the ESRC's last new priority area, 'A Vibrant and Fair Society'. Can we detect the further influence of the Big Society idea here? We can. The ESRC's Delivery Plan only uses the term 'Big Society' once in its account of this area, but the idea of the Big Society is everywhere. The general aim of the area is "developing ways to enhance the role and contributions of citizens, voluntary sector organisations and social enterprises to create a vibrant national and global society". The questions it addresses include: "What are the roles of citizens, voluntary sector organisations and social enterprises in the devolution of powers to local and neighbourhood levels?", "How can we improve social mobility and community wellbeing through voluntary action and social enterprise?", and "How can the operational effectiveness of social enterprises, charities, and voluntary organisations be improved?" All these are core Big Society preoccupations. So again it looks as if a coach and horses is being driven through even the weak BIS version of the Haldane Principle.

How much more of this kind of disregard of the Haldane Principle will we find if we investigate the different Research Councils' Delivery Plans for 2011-15 (available from the bottom of http://stormbreaking.blogspot.com)? And what do we make of it? Should we shrug and say that perhaps the Principle is dated anyway and we should move on? A reason not to is that the Principle was formulated for a good reason: to guard against corruption. And is there not something corrupt about public money being directed, by whatever mechanism, to research that will advance the personal enthusiasms of the Prime Minister, or the political projects of his party?

Meanwhile, ordinary academics will feel that in order to be successful in attracting grants (which increasingly in British universities are not a luxury but a necessary condition of keeping one's job) we had better start mentioning the Big Society, or nudge theory, or whatever other of the governing party's ideas have found their ways into the Research Councils' Delivery Plans, in our applications for research funding. Better yet, we should start to remould our applications and our research plans so as to advance these ideas. And if we do that we will become in our own small ways party to corruption. That is the way with corruption: it starts at the top but in the end it goes all the way down.

Some supplementary notes (5 April 2011)

(1) I should qualify my assertion that "traditionally the Haldane Principle has been understood to mean ... that decisions on which areas of research to fund should be taken by researchers themselves". The history of the principle is more complex than this suggests.

The principle is named after Richard Haldane, whose Haldane Report of 1918 recommended setting up Advisory Councils under a Department of Intelligence and Research, to oversee 'general research', as opposed to research conducted by other Departments for their own ends (see pp. 31-35). These Advisory Councils later evolved into the Research Councils. The term 'Haldane Principle' was apparently not coined until the 1960s, when Lord Hailsham used it to mean that research and development should be conducted "through an independent council of industrialists, scientists and other eminent persons and not directly by a Government Department itself". Since then the 'Haldane Principle' has been invoked periodically to summarise a general ideal of the independence of Research Councils from Government in allocating research funding, but it has never been defined precisely.

The nearest thing to an authoritative interpretation of the principle under the last government was by John Denham who in a speech in 2008 asserted "that researchers are best placed to determine detailed priorities; that the government's role is to set the over-arching strategy; and that the research councils are 'guardians of the independence of science'". This gives already gives quite a lot of scope for governments to dictate Research Councils' decisions, depending on how far one can stretch the notion of an "over-arching strategy". The appendix to the BIS document, by interpreting the principle more narrowly so that it refers only to "decisions on individual research proposals", extends that scope further. But the prioritisation of nudge theory and Big Society research by Research Councils is clearly incompatible with the principle under either of these interpretations.

For discussions of the principle and its history see:
Would Haldane mind, in principle?, Nick Dusic, 2008
The 'Haldane Principle' and other invented traditions in science policy, David Edgerton, 2009 (see section 3)
The Haldane Principle, Bill Wakeham, 2009
Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, 2009 (see paras 138-159)

(2) A petition to remove "The Big Society" as a strategic area for AHRC funding was started on 29 March and has so far reached 2700 signatures. Unfortunately the petition speaks of the Big Society as one of the AHRC's "six strategic areas for research funding". This looks incorrect. The AHRC Delivery Plan states the AHRC will support five existing cross-Council themes (Connected Communities, Digital Economy, Living with Environmental Change, Global Uncertainties, and Lifelong Health and Wellbeing). It also announces four new priority themes of its own (Care for the Future, Translating Cultures, Digital Transformations, and Science in Culture). The Big Society is not named as a separate theme. Rather the Delivery Plan's statements about contributing to the Big Society agenda are in the context of the Connected Communities theme. What the AHRC needs to do is make it clear that it will not prioritise any research project over others simply on the grounds that the project makes such a contribution.

(3) Here are some other recent comments on AHRC and the Big Society:
Willetts and the AHRC: Big Society or Big Brother?, James Gordon Finlayson, 28 March
The AHRC and the "Big Society", Gary Banham, Inter Kant, 28 March
The AHRC, The Observer, and Mr. Haldane’s Principle, Iain Pears, Future Thoughts, 28 March

Research must not be tied to politics, Stefan Collini, Guardian, 1 April

(added, 7 April:)

That AHRC/Haldane dust-up, in chronological order, Jane Sumner, A Blind Thermometer, 29 March
Don't play politics with academic freedom, James Ladyman, New Statesman, 30 March
The latest on the AHRC, "The Big Society", and the Government, Thom Brooks, The Brooks Blog, 5 April
AHRC rejects Observer allegations, AHRC, 7 April (a second response by the AHRC to the Observer article)

Andrew Chitty