Adam Golberg announces new post about Ministers inserting themselves into research grant announcements

“You might very well think that as your hypothesis, but I couldn’t possibly comment”

Here’s something I’ve been wondering recently.  Is it just me, or have major research council funding announcements started to be made by government ministers, rather than by the, er, research councils?

Here’s a couple of examples that caught my eye from the last week or so. First, David Willetts MP “announces £29 million of funding for ESRC Centres and Large Grants“.  Thanks Dave!  To be fair, he is Minster of State for Universities and Science.  Rather more puzzling is George Osborne announcing “22 new Centres for Doctoral Training“, though apparently he found the money as Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Seems a bit tenuous to me.

So I had a quick look back through the ESRC and EPSRC press release archives to see if the prominence of government ministers in research council funding announcements was a new thing or not.  Because I hadn’t noticed it before.  With the ESRC, it is new.  Here’s the equivalent announcement from last year in which no government minister is mentioned.  With the EPSRC, it’s being going on for longer.  This year’s archive and the 2013 archive show government ministers (mainly Willetts, sometimes Cable or Osborne) front and centre in major announcements.  In 2012 they get a name check, but normally in the second or third paragraph, not in the headline, and don’t get a picture of themselves attached to the story.

Does any of this matter? Perhaps not, but here’s why I think it’s worth mentioning.  The Haldane Principle is generally defined as “decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians”.  And one of my worries is that in closely associating political figures with funding decisions, the wrong impression is given.  Read the recent ESRC announcement again, and it’s only when you get down to the ‘Notes for Editors’ section that there’s any indication that there was a competition, and you have to infer quite heavily from those notes that decisions were taken independently of government.

Why is this happening? It might be for quite benign reasons – perhaps research council PR people think (probably not unreasonably) that name-checking a government minister gives them a greater chance of media coverage. But I worry that it might be for less benign reasons related to political spin – seeking credit and basking in the reflected glory of all these new investments, which to the non-expert eye look to be something novel, rather than research council business as usual.  To be fair, there are good arguments for thinking that the current government does deserve some credit for protecting research budgets – a flat cash settlement (i.e. cut only be the rate of inflation each year) is less good than many want, but better than many feared. But it would be deeply misleading if the general public were to think that these announcements represented anything above and beyond the normal day-to-day work of the research councils.

Jo VanEvery tells me via Twitter that ministerial announcements are normal practice in Canada, but something doesn’t quite sit right with me about this, and it’s not a party political worry.  I feel there’s a real risk of appearing to politicise research.  If government claims credit, it’s reasonable for the opposition to criticise… now that might be the level of investment, but might it extend to the investments chosen?  Or do politicians know better than to go there for cheap political points?

Or should we stop worrying and just embrace it? It’s not clear that many people outside of the research ‘industry’ notice anyway (though the graphene announcement was very high profile), and so perhaps the chances of the electorate being misled (about this, at least) are fairly small.

But we could go further.  MEPs to announce Horizon 2020 funding? Perhaps Nick Clegg should announce the results of the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grants Scheme, although given the Victorian origins of investments and wealth supporting work of the Leverhulme Trust, perhaps the honour should go to the ghosts of Gladstone or Disraeli.

This entry was posted in British Academy, ESRC, Funding, Funding Policy, Research Impact, University culture. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Adam Golberg announces new post about Ministers inserting themselves into research grant announcements

  1. Jo VanEvery says:

    My information was not intended as endorsement of the practice, as I suspect you know. I do wonder if your line of questioning goes in the right direction. It may not be the PR folks at the councils asking, it may be the ministers insisting. The council people might be equally disturbed at the implications.

    I think from the ministers perspective it is a “here’s how your tax dollars are being spent” thing and taking responsibility for what happens down the line. I agree that it obscures the arms length relationship between the agencies and the government.

    Which returns us to your bigger concerns, which I share. Is the government actually trying to undermine that arms length relationship?

    • Adam says:

      Hi Jo – yep, I interpreted your comments as for the purposes of international comparison, rather than an endorsement. Apologies if my blog post doesn’t make that as clear as it might have done – reading back it is a bit ambiguous.

      I’d be surprised if government ministers were so gauche as to insist on being name-checked, but who knows what might have been done on their behalf. Another possibility is that it’s one of those unintended consequences of power relationships – that people and organisations do things that they think will find favour with more powerful people/organisations, without ever being asked. I’ve got vague undergraduate memories about theories of political power meaning that sometimes power is such that you don’t have to assert it – others will just manoeuvre as if you had.

      It’s a difficult one. There does need to be accountability for expenditure on research in times of austerity, but I’d much rather keep ministers out of it. Or failing that, being a bit clearer about their role (or lack thereof).

  2. Jerome Ma says:

    Hi Adam, I am a portfolio manager in EPSRC and I read your blogpost with interest.

    Before I go on, just a disclaimer, what follows are my personal views, the contents of this post has not been checked by nor influenced by comments from anyone at EPSRC. All mistakes in content and fact are mine and mine alone.

    As far as I understand, ministerial announcements typically accompany the award of significant amounts of EPSRC funding for example the 22 new Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) you referred to, as well as the award of the first tranche of 70 CDTs (accompanied by an announcement by David Willets), which together represent a total investment in CDTs of around £500 million. Such large awards can be considered a bit beyond ‘normal day-to-day research council work’, though perhaps this is a nitpicky point, and I only raise it provide context for the desire for ministerial announcements.

    ESPRC requests these ministerial announcements based, as you identify, on the increased chances of media coverage for these investments (though don’t hold me to this). Looking ahead, this may be viewed as a means of facilitating the likely ‘impact’ of these investments (apologies for shoehorning that in) by helping to raise awareness amongst those who might benefit from or find these investments relevant (industry, society or public sector).

    Finally, as you might expect, ministers are happy to be associated with good news and tend to be willing participants in such publicity initiatives.

    I suppose this post does not do much in the way of alleviating your concerns over the politicisation of research and perhaps these announcements do lead to the sometimes misleading view that these awards are made as a result of direct ministerial intervention. Nevertheless such publicity initiatives are done with the best of intentions and hopefully having open and frank dialogues like these can help make these processes and the intentions behind them clearer for all.

    • Adam says:

      Thanks Jerome. Very interesting to have an (unofficial) insider’s view on this. The industry awareness aspect and the link to impact as a good reason for getting more media coverage is an important one, and one that hadn’t occurred to me. And I accept that public accountability requires letting the public know what research their taxes are paying for.

      I think my interest in this was largely driven by the ESRC starting to do this where they hadn’t before. I had thought it was new for the EPSRC too, but a look back through the archives showed that I was wrong about that. I think I detect a slight inflation in the level of prominence that government ministers are given, but I haven’t conducted a detailed analysis.

      In many ways I’m more worried by the ESRC doing this than the EPSRC, as I can see a lot more potential for confusion about the level of ministerial involvement in social policy related research than, say, graphene or innovative manufacturing and other EPSRC stuff which is less obviously politicised. We absolutely can’t have the politicisation of funding for academic social policy research. Looking back I’m surprised I didn’t mention the mess the AHRC got itself into over the mere mention of the “big society” in a call.

      But the new Newton Fund is another example…. ministerial announcement (fair enough, because it’s new money outside the ringfence, well done and thank you to all concerned) that on one reading appears to say that a BIS “governance board” will be making the decisions. Read in conjunction with the RCUK statement I’d infer that they’re governing it, but not making funding decisions on individual projects, but it’s hard to be sure.

      I’m very grateful to you for posting your thoughts on this issue, Jerome – much appreciated.

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