Wednesday, 10 August 2011

London Riots: How Long until RCUK Issues a Call for Proposals?

As someone who’s spent a good deal of time on the funding block, I’ve always been impressed at how the Research Councils are able to jump on contemporary political bandwagons. Of course, they wouldn’t see at it as such. They would see it as providing research that will answer societies concerns. After 9/11 and 7/7, it was all about answering the threat from terrorism, particularly Islamic terrorism. Around the same time as Kyoto, it was all about ‘Living with Environmental Change’. In the most recent Delivery Plans all the talk was informed by the 2008 economic crisis, of ‘enabl[ing] the development of robust government and private sector strategies to ensure sustainable growth’ (ESRC Delivery Plan 2011-15). Sometimes they take this too far, and the AHRC has had its fingers burnt by appearing to not only jump on the ‘Big Society’ bandwagon, but sit beside the driver and do his bidding.

So how long do you think it will be before a call for proposals is issued around gangs, riots and criminality? My guess is six months to a year, perhaps shoehorned into the ESRC’s ‘Influencing Behaviour’ or ‘Vibrant and Fair Society’ strands. However, there’s a warning from a blog I read recently about the dangers inherent in adjusting your research funding policy in light of current affairs. Remember all the funding that went on terrorism in the mid-noughties? Has it had any real effect? Are we any closer to understanding or preventing terrorism or acts of carnage? Or has the cycle turned, naturally, to other issues? The events in Norway show that individuals or groups can still kill indiscriminately, and that ‘Global Uncertainties’ are no nearer resolution.

Whilst I accept the rationale behind the Research Council's wish to meet contemporary challenges, and of the push to integrate university research with the wider society through the impact agenda, perhaps the time has come to recognise that following the curve of current events is somewhat fruitless. Should the Research Councils now unshackle academics so that they can pursue whatever research is good rather than whatever research is political?


  1. I think it largely depends what's expected of these topical calls and of the research that's funded as a result. With the terrorism research in particular, it's hard to know - what (if anything) do we read into the fact that it's been some time since the last terrorist attack in the UK? Is this to the credit of the lessons learned through the research and taken on by research users, or is it completely irrelevant? Will we have an REF impact case study taking partial credit for nothing having been blown up for a bit?

    Having said that, I doubt we'd need a separate call to encourage research grant applications to study the recent riots. I think you're right - I'd expect some kind of steer too, but perhaps these steers are as much for the funding panel as for researchers.

  2. Thanks Adam. To be honest, I think the lack of a major terrorist attack in Britain is less to do with RCUK-funded research than with political events moving on. That's not to say there won't be terrorism in the future. I don't have any illusions that terrorism has been solved, but that we're going through a lull which, to be honest, is not really anything to do with RCUK.

    I'd be so surprised if RCUK don't issue a specific call. If the debacle over the AHRC's Big Society lovefest teaches us anything, it's that RCUK love to latch on to current trends to highlight the relevance of their funded research.