I’m sitting in the Star Alliance lounge in Terminal 1, awaiting the beginning of my LHR-SFO-PDX journey, having been awake since 0400 (to catch the 4.5 hour bus journey from Plymouth* to Heathrow), drinking for free. At least the last part is a good thing.
British academics, specifically those who rely on the Arts and Humanities Research Council for their grant income, are somewhat disgruntled. The government is directing them to “research” on David Cameron’s Big Idea, the “Big Society“. To wit:
The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will spend a “significant” amount of its funding on the prime minister’s vision for the country, after a government “clarification” of the Haldane principle – a convention that for 90 years has protected the right of academics to decide where research funds should be spent.
By “clarification”, they mean “you want money? Do what we tell you.” This is diabolical on so many levels. I’m an empiricist by training — I try to study the way things are, not how they ought to be. However, my first reaction is that this proposal is better suited for fiction writers. It’s never been terribly clear just what Cameron means by the Big Society, and he had a notoriously difficult time explaining it last month, but a consensus seems to be settling on one pernicious observation: that the Big Society is a Mad Men-esque re-branding of privatization: replacing public services with a volunteer ethos. He ill-logically argues that as Big Government failed to address poverty, the state must get out of the way and allow the private sector and volunteerism to equally fail, if not worse.
Returning to the requirement that research grants in the arts and humanities “study” the Big Society — while I’m an empiricist, I have respect for solidly done normative work: it’s predicated on a logic, can be constructed with rigour, and is often articulate (certainly more so than my work; there’s only so many ways one can make a “Data, Methods, and Measures” section of a paper sexy.) However, the Big Society is an ill-formed vague idea that doesn’t yet exist. What is there to study? I suppose my colleagues in the humanities can construct equally rigorous normative work on how the Big Society ought to be, or one can conduct a comparative study examining how the Big Society operates in other settings (e.g. the US), but first the object of the research question requires definition. This has been lacking.
Oh yeah, there’s also the whole bit where a sitting Government is pushing its ideology on the academy. That’s mediocre as well.
What isn’t mediocre is drinking in an airport for free, and there’s a decent wine selection here. Having just finished my first glass, it’s probably a good idea to cease blogging.
[*] Plymouth’s slogan is “the spirit of discovery”. One thing I’ve discovered by living in Plymouth for 7.5 years is that it’s difficult to get anywhere from Plymouth. It’s little wonder that the pilgrims are so mythologized in the US, and I often feel that in terms of logistics, little has changed since 1620.