AHRC anxiety relief

May 26, 2011

Peter Mandler asks specific questions and raises important issues ("'Big Society' a small part of our anxieties", Letters, 19 May).

The Arts and Humanities Research Council allots about 35 per cent of its funding in openly responsive mode, including fellowships, networks and research grants - its second-largest allocation after postgraduate support (about 40 per cent). Themed research constitutes about 14 per cent, including AHRC-specific and cross-council programmes to which it contributes. The rest is spent on areas such as international and knowledge exchange.

What is and isn't responsive mode is an interesting question. There is a spectrum, from entirely open calls to pretty open calls under broad headings such as "Religion and society" and "Care for the future", the parameters of which are set by academics. Although the latter are not described in the budget as such, it can be argued that they are indeed responsive mode; the same thinking applies to research funded jointly by the AHRC and the US National Science Foundation, which is grouped under "the rest" in the budget even though it operates by "open calls" that are limited only by the requirement for transatlantic partnerships and the organisations' remits.

I have no difficulty endorsing the proposition Mandler quotes from 2005-06 that responsive-mode funding is the "key means" of supporting research in the humanities, and doubt that any other research council would demur from this principle. Similar points can be made in relation to the use of the word "strategic". It too covers a range of phenomena, from stimulating emerging areas to targeting disciplines that, from time to time, require additional investment (modern languages being a case in point today).

Overall, the AHRC allocates just over 20 per cent of the total research funding available to UK arts and humanities. This is dwarfed by the amount (more than 75 per cent) delivered through the quality-related (QR) block grant directly to universities without stipulation. "Strategic" investment is essential, not least because QR funding is not so good at stimulating partnerships, sustaining the health of disciplines, developing interdisciplinary research and supporting broad postgraduate provision. With this in mind, I find the idea of a threat to responsive-mode research difficult to accept.

Two final specific answers in case neglect fuels suspicion: there are no plans "to extend the strategic priorities" to postgraduates as imagined, other than to take a view on the health of disciplines; and the purportedly "ominous" new methodologies for making awards refer to methods that reduce application workloads - something requested from all quarters. Not very ominous, I think.

Rick Rylance, Chief executive, Arts and Humanities Research Council

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