Arts and Humanities Research Council to comply with Government directive? 
Research funding to be used for research on the ‘Big Society’? 
In its research funding announcement last December the Department for Business Innovation and Skills included an Annex on the Haldane principle, to clear up ‘some uncertainty’.
The BIS Annex asserts that ‘the Haldane Principle does not apply to the research budgets of government departments, which are used to fund research to support their departmental policies and objectives’. And, with a leap across a chasm in the logic, added that, ‘departments work closely with the Research Councils to ensure that the research they fund is aligned with that funded by the science and research base and delivers maximum value to the taxpayer’.
For the Arts and Humanities Research Council this appears to lie well within the Secretary of State’s powers as set out in the Higher Education Act 2004, Part 1, s.10. That does not mean that it is indeed in accordance with the Haldane Principle, which has never been defined or protected by statute.
BIS has left out the history. Richard Burdon Haldane, Lord Haldane (1856–1928), became a practical asset to a series of Governments. He was a philosopher as well as a politician. He gave the Gifford Lectures at St Andrews between 1902 and 1904 while, as he explains in his Autobiography, ‘Not only was I doing much work in the House of Commons, but I was sitting on the Explosives Committee and presiding over various other Committees and organisations, as well as composing and delivering Gifford lectures.’
Haldane took a particular interest in higher education policy. From the 1880s he was active in the reform of the University of Edinburgh, and the development of Liverpool University. With the Webbs he helped found the London School of Economics in 1895. On the Council of the University of London from 1890-98 he took a lead in the movement which turned the University of London from a mere Examining Board into a University in 1898.
Haldane pressed from 1904 for grants of public money to universities, with the proviso that there should be a buffer between state funding of higher education and the decision as to how the money should be spent. He took the lead on the committee to advise the Treasury on university grants, and its third report recommended establishment of a permanent impartial advisory body’, eventually set up as the University Grants Committee5.
Research Councils as advisers to Government
Haldane remarked in the House of Lords in 1918 on the dangers of allowing Government to control education spending in detail: "In all our educational developments you would have to submit the judgment of the Board of Education to the judgment of the Treasury. I have a great admiration of the Treasury, but I have never found it progressive in its view of new things, and nothing is more likely to stultify and reduce to folly what we are endeavouring to do in this Bill than to introduce the Treasury as an expert in educational matters."
The University Grants Committee Report of 1923-4 stressed that: "The remote and negative influence of a Government Committee concerned with the distribution of grants to universities throughout the country...is a poor substitute for the close supervision and active guidance that the university itself could provide through a university body in continuous and intimate contact with the work of its own component parts."
The UGC was chaired at the time by William M’Cormick, who had been a member of the Haldane Commission.
At first the specialist buffer bodies which have evolved into the modern research councils had a clear advisory function and it was more or less accepted that Government listened with respect. The Haldane committee also entered a plea to government departments for a “generous conception” of the scope of the work to be assigned to the agencies concerned with “general research”—to support them without trying to control the content of the work. In short, "Choose your men; make sure they have a clear grasp of the nature of your problems; give them their heads."
Research Councils as channels for the implementation of Government Policy
At one end of the spectrum of public funding is to have no policy, to provide a block grant, and allow universities to spend the money as they choose. At the other end, Haldane’s nightmare is realised in the allocation by Government of specific sums to be spent for approved purposes. We are now close to this end.
"Every Government will have some key national strategic priorities such as addressing the challenges of an ageing population, energy supply or climate change", says the BIS document. "It is .... appropriate for Ministers to ask Research Councils to consider how best they can contribute to these priorities". It is left to the Research Councils "to decide on the specific projects and people to fund within these priorities, free from Ministerial interference", but not to determine priorities for themselves. The AHRC has published a delivery plan in compliance with this understanding.
If there are reasons why it is now in the public interest for the state to determine the direction of academic research, it is important to understand what has changed and why it is compelling the allocation of public funding for research to the ‘state control’ end of the spectrum. Is this not another matter which it is essential for the delayed White Paper to address?
 Frank Heath on Haldane’s influence on higher education, in Viscount Grey of Fallodon; Sir Charles Harris; Sir H. Frank Heath; Sir Claud Schuster, ‘Viscount Haldane of Cloan: the man and his work’, Public Administration (1928), p.22
 Quoted in Sir Douglas Logan, ‘Haldane and the University of London, the twenty-sixth Haldane Memorial Lecture, Birkbeck College, 1960.
 Andrew Schonfield, ‘The Social Sciences in the great debate on science policy’, Haldane Memorial Lecture, Birkbeck College, 1972.