The arts and humanities have not been forgotten: finding funding post-pandemic

Edward Harcourt on why the arts and humanities are so vital to tackling societal challenges and what funding streams are available to research within these disciplines

Edward Harcourt's avatar
Arts and Humanities Research Council
13 Aug 2021
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The pandemic has seen research yield some spectacular results. The most obvious has been the research leading to the production of the Covid vaccine. But this does not mean the UK’s research response has been all about STEM.

If that wasn’t obvious before, it has become obvious now that vaccine hesitancy has mounted up the national agenda. Why do conspiracy theories arise? Why do some people, but not others, find them credible, and how do you stop them?

A little less obviously, in the age of Instagram and the mobile phone, there’s no reason to expect diaspora communities in the UK to take their public health information from official UK sources when they can access global media in their own language. And yet some of those diaspora communities have included those most at risk from Covid-19. So, we need deep linguistic and cultural knowledge to understand what information those communities are receiving, whether it is reliable, and if it isn’t, how to make sure more reliable information reaches them instead.

This illustrates why the arts and humanities component of the overall UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) response to Covid-19 is so important: between the vaccine and good public health outcomes lies public health information and public attitudes, including whether people see that information as trustworthy. That area is covered by the arts and humanities.

Responding to the pandemic with arts and humanities research

Of course that’s not all there is to the arts and humanities response to the pandemic: the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), part of UKRI, has funded a large number of projects during this time, for example, on the effects of lockdown on the arts and cultural sector and on ways of mitigating them, be it technologies to enable dancers to rehearse together without occupying the same actual space, or the positive effect on mental health of digital engagement with culture.

There’s an important lesson in these examples. Some people may worry that the pandemic response was about dropping everything we had been doing before, and suddenly striking out in a new “applied” direction. On the contrary the trio of:

have been central themes of AHRC strategic programming for a while now.

We, and the researchers we fund, were able to respond rapidly to the pandemic because of those existing strategic investments, and our response has in turn taught us something about how to take those strategic investments forward.

The pandemic response is admittedly only one aspect of AHRC’s challenge-led research, and there are others, but it shows how different strands of challenge-led research can come together if they need to.

Funding criteria for arts and humanities research: challenge, impact and discovery

So, should arts and humanities researchers think that they will only be able to get their work funded if their work is challenge-led? No. Nor is that true if the question is rephrased as about commercial benefit, even though our investments in the creative industries have leveraged impressive quantities of private sector match funding and we plan to intensify commercialisation activity in the coming year. But funds aren’t directed solely towards contemporary challenges any more than they are towards commercialisation. There are fellowships and open call schemes, and these are completely open as to topic, because we are committed to funding outstanding work that helps us understand ourselves across a huge range of subjects.

In addition, the dual support system directs public funds to research via two routes – on the one hand the research councils and on the other the research excellence framework (REF). Arts and humanities research is less reliant on research council funding than any other field, with about 70 per cent of the public funds flowing to arts and humanities research coming from Quality Rated (QR) research funding. About 25 per cent of a department’s overall REF performance will rely on impact but, by the same token, a much larger proportion of it won’t – which means that whatever AHRC does, there is significant scope within the current funding regime for arts and humanities academics to pursue discovery as opposed to more impact- or challenge-led research.

And there is wisdom in that: we need a broad base of basic research in the arts and humanities, in part so we are ready to respond to the next big challenge, because we don’t always know what the next big challenge is going to be.

Edward Harcourt is director of research, strategy and innovation for the Arts and Humanities Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation.

UKRI Funding Opportunities

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AHRC Funding Guide


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