Determining the national research agenda

A common feature of government-commissioned higher education reviews in a number of countries in recent years has been the suggestion that publicly funded research (and indeed teaching programmes) should take account of national strategic priorities. Put another way, what this means is that if university researchers are spending public money on research projects, these should at least in some measure address issues and problems that the government has identified as being important.

So for example, this imperative was set out in New Horizons, the final report of the Scottish Joint Future Thinking Taskforce on Universities, as follows:

‘Universities already contribute and will expect to continue to contribute significantly to making Scotland a more prosperous place. In future, though, the Scottish Government will expect the university sector to demonstrate more explicitly how the funding it receives from the Government contributes to delivering against the National Outcomes, thereby ensuring there is alignment of publicly funded activity against the Scottish Government’s Purpose – its vision for the whole of Scotland – as set out in the National Performance Framework.’

Similarly in Ireland the Hunt report (National Strategy for Higher Education) suggested that research should be more focused and should address areas of strategic priority identified by the government.

The case for these recommendations would be that as significant public money is being spent, at least some of it should be spent on finding solutions to national problems identified by elected governments. The case – maybe not against this proposition, but at least in partial qualification of it – might be that the academy cannot constantly be conscripted to follow the latest political fad; and that society benefits greatly from general research capacity building, and that curiosity based research is often responsible for some of our greatest advances.

An example of the problems this kind of approach may encounter can be found in the recent decision by the British government to make David Cameron’s concept of the ‘big society’ a required subject for at least some funded research. Apparently the government made the maintenance of the full funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council conditional on a ‘significant’ amount of the money being spent on the ‘big society’ idea. This has generated accusations that the government is using public money to give academic respectability to what is really just a political slogan.

It is a tricky issue. The ‘big society’ concept has already been the subject of some academic analysis anyway: for example, in this seminar at the University of Southampton. If public money were being allocated on the condition that researchers validate a political slogan or a particular party’s policies, then we would be moving into territory that might more comfortably be left to Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi.  But a more impartial approach to analyzing government policies, including analysis of a central policy platform, may be less of a problem. But even then some may feel that any government direction of the subject areas for academic research crosses a line.

It seems likely to me that it is no longer realistic to expect governments, with scarce resources to distribute, to stay away from any kind of prioritisation of research areas. However, what could not be acceptable would be any attempt to make research focus on partisan political concepts. Furthermore, what must also be ensured is that any such process does not take over the whole academy, and that independent research, including research with no particular policy agenda or strategic focus, is also maintained in significant volume. That is the deal that higher education must aim to strike.

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9 Comments on “Determining the national research agenda”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    Nietzsche said it best: “The wasteland grows”.

  2. […] “A common feature of government-commissioned higher education reviews in a number of countries in recent years has been the suggestion that publicly funded research (and indeed teaching programmes) should take account of national strategic priorities …” (more) […]

  3. Vincent Says:

    Is this not displaying the differences in expectations.
    On the face of it with any given years intake you will lose 10% conservatively before their Bachelors. You will use directly or indirectly another 10% in academic or academic supporting rolls. So, what happens to the other 80%. They end up having to progress in some vocational area. Which in most cases they could have done sans degree.
    And then on the other leg of your stool, the research leg. Since this leg is so internationalised, how exactly can any government see the linage of it’s dime from exchequer vote to manufactured dohickie on the other side.
    And so, the pay-master sees it’s getting nothing for all it’s moneys.

  4. Al Says:

    Academics are equally capable of bias individualy or in groups. Government shouldn’t be seen as the Viking outside the nuns convent. Academic professionalism will guide all through.

  5. John Mullen Says:

    It is absolutely true and important that the government has scare resources to distribute. But I think you meant to write “scarce resources”.

  6. jfryar Says:

    I’d raise two points. Firstly, the public hasn’t a clue where their money is being spent because, unlike any other aspect of funding, there is virtually no analysis, comment, discussion, etc in the media concerning research. This allows governments to make statements about ‘strategic’ intent and research ‘direction’ and ‘impact’ without ever having to fear they might be taken to task.

    Secondly, the universities have played into this nonsense with their bright, happy, ‘save the world’ research highlights. If every story you post says ‘this will help us fight diseases’ then, at some point, the public is going to ask ’em, so which diseases have we now fought?’

  7. Ciarán Says:

    There’s an (angry) update from the AHRC, refuting the Big Society story.

  8. Anna Notaro Says:

    The AHRC has just circulated among all peer review members the following statement still refuting the Big Society

    As previously stated, we reject the allegations, reported in The Observer of 27 March, that government ministers influenced the research funded by the AHRC with respect to the current administration’s policy on ‘big society’, and the further allegation that our funding settlement was conditional on this. These allegations have not been supported by any evidence. One person quoted has said subsequently, in a public blog, that the allegations he made did not refer to the AHRC.

    We also reject allegations made in a letter to The Observer on 3 April that the AHRC is intending to ‘promote research on “the big society”.’ The AHRC does not have a dedicated budget to promote ‘big society’ research.

    As a Research Council, the AHRC funds a large portfolio from postgraduate support (40% of budget) to ‘blue skies’ investigation of topics proposed by researchers (35% of budget). In addition, in the spending period to 2015, we will prioritise the maintenance and development of capacity in the key discipline areas of modern languages, design and cultural heritage. We will fund research in four emerging themes in the arts and humanities which were established following extensive consultation with the research community. We will support cross-council interdisciplinary research in fields such as the ‘Digital Economy’ and ‘Living with Environmental Change’ and lead the ‘Connected Communities’ programme. We also support international research activity and knowledge exchange in the arts and humanities.

    The AHRC has led the development of the programme on ‘Connected Communities’ for two years. It involves investigators from five different Research Councils and covers a large and complex range of issues. The development of civic values and the historical evolution of communities, for example, are among the distinctive arts and humanities contributions referred to in the Delivery Plan. These are an important part of the normal repertoire of arts and humanities research. ‘Connected Communities’ in its entirety will receive 1% of our budget for 2011/12.

    Like other funders of research, including charities and foundations, we believe that research has responsibilities towards public life and contributes directly to the general good. The outcomes of research may – or may not – accord with the preferences of a particular administration, but overall it enriches public debate, better understanding, the development of critical distance and the creation of better-informed policy.

    We unconditionally support the Haldane principle. Expert peer review underpins funding decisions at the AHRC, and decisions are made on the basis of competitive excellence and not specific policy agendas. More than this, the academic community is represented at every level of our decision-making and governance structures and we consult very widely on the development of all of our strategic research priorities.

    We recognise and celebrate the immense value brought to research by our Peer Review College members and the professionalism and judgement they bring to ensure the integrity of decision-making. We are committed to peer review unconditionally, not least to sustain the Haldane principle.

    The false allegations made in The Observer, and events subsequent to their publication, are of major concern to us. In developing our Delivery Plan, and since its publication, we have engaged in extensive dialogue, for example through our meetings with Subject Associations and visits to HEIs. We plan to continue these activities as scheduled and to initiate further opportunities to debate the issues involved.


    Rick Rylance

    Chief Executive AHRC

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