But can you do a podcast on it?

Knowledge transfer is often perceived as a concept that is limited to science, but Hannah Fearn discovers it is equally relevant for the arts and humanities

October 1, 2009

Sometimes it happens accidentally. When Gavin Bowd heard his translation of a controversial French writer read by Iggy Pop, the "godfather of punk", on his latest release, Bowd admits he was "amazed".

Bowd, a lecturer in French at the University of St Andrews, translated Michel Houellebecq's science-fiction novel La Possibilite d'une ile (published in English in 2006 as The Possibility of an Island). His version was the one chosen to appear on Pop's 2009 album Preliminaires, with the artist describing his latest musical offering as an alternative soundtrack to the book.

"Academics are constantly under pressure to demonstrate research that has a real impact on society. People talk about knowledge transfer, so I suppose this is rock'n'roll knowledge transfer at work," Bowd says.

Although this particular piece of knowledge transfer owed much to serendipity, at higher education institutions across the UK, academics in the arts and humanities are thinking hard about how to translate their research for a wider audience. Countless exciting and innovative projects are springing up, linking universities with museums, galleries, theatres and the creative industries. Yet, despite such endeavours, the perception of knowledge transfer is often as something limited to science and engineering. If academics can't use their knowledge to "make" something in the traditional sense, what use is it to the outside world?

A report published in June by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Leading the World: The Economic Impact of UK Arts and Humanities Research, attempts to address this misconception. "The impact of arts and humanities research goes far beyond the reaches of academia," it claims.

The study highlights examples of the profitable work that academics are doing with business, industry and the culture sector. It cites an essay by Mary Beard, the renowned University of Cambridge classicist, who demonstrated that UK academic research into Greek and Latin had fed directly into a variety of plays that deal with classical themes and which have enjoyed commercial success, such as Tony Harrison's 2008 production of Fram at the Olivier Theatre in London. Research carried out in the academy by historians of religion adds to an awareness of our religious past, with this knowledge providing, the report says, a "valuable corrective" to simplistic, short-term solutions to present-day religious and political problems, and offers context for debates about British identity.

So far so useful, but the report goes a step further in putting a figure on the value of research in the arts and humanities. Estimates calculated by PricewaterhouseCoopers on behalf of the AHRC suggest that for every £1 spent on research by the research council, the UK may derive up to £10 in immediate benefits and another £15-20 in long-term benefits.

Even if this estimation is necessarily crude, it provides a justification, and even an encouragement, for outreach work in the arts and humanities. The report envisages a not-too-distant future for higher education in which philosophers and historians are as engaged with industry as physicists and engineers. "As the benefits arising from connections between researchers, businesses, other organisations and government become more established, increasingly consistent expectations within those communities should emerge," argues the report. "This will lead to an even greater role for the arts and humanities in the innovation system and to the subsequent growth of the British economy in ways that are unimaginable were we unwisely to seek to revert to older modes of innovation."

It is no surprise that the AHRC is now placing such emphasis on the wider impact of the research it funds. In order to secure a continued income stream from the public purse, the AHRC must show that the often esoteric research topics it supports play a genuine role in boosting the economy. For the arts and humanities, this is obviously harder than for other disciplines; at first glance it is difficult to understand the wider practical use of a new interrogation of the philosophies of Locke, Berkeley and Hume.

For this reason the AHRC has abandoned the linear concept of knowledge transfer in favour of a more co-operative model. It hopes that, instead of researchers feeling they are just passing on what they already know, academics and external partners will work together.

"Knowledge transfer in the arts and humanities is still a fairly new concept. We have found a definition that is quite broad, but it also allows innovative activity brought about by the application of existing knowledge," says Susan Amor, head of knowledge transfer at the AHRC. "At the AHRC, we refer to knowledge transfer as the process by which new knowledge is co-produced, by interactions between academics and non-academics."

"Impact is an outcome of knowledge transfer," she says. "Knowledge transfer should have a transformative effect on the non-academic partner." And to have this transformative effect, the AHRC would like to see universities working far more closely with the creative industries. In order to do that, the council has committed to providing a "flexible portfolio of funding opportunities".

Money talks. Now that funding is available for knowledge transfer, the universities are listening. Many have appointed dedicated staff whose job it is to ensure that the knowledge held within arts and humanities departments is pushed out into the wider community. Andrew Linn, professor of linguistics and director of research and innovation in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield, admits it can be hard to get some academics on board.

"The general perception is that the type of work we do isn't really amenable to transfer in the traditional sense. We're not creating things that can be commercialised. That's why the barrier is set up in people's minds. They think that all universities want is to create a revenue stream. They think, 'We're not in that sort of market so it's not something for us.'"

Linn tells members of his department that they are transferring knowledge every single day. "It's what we do when we get up and address undergraduates in the lecture theatre," he says. "Once people realise - either by their own experience, or because of my explanation of how we work - that it's really just an extension of our teaching work it seems more understandable and more normal."

He spends time explaining to his colleagues that the arts and humanities are "saleable" to a wider audience: "People genuinely are interested. There is a huge appetite." The popularity of historical dramas and documentaries on television, rising visitor figures for museums and galleries, and an increasing role for the public intellectual (even though some popular personalities, such as Alain de Botton, are not strictly academics) provide evidence. "Once people start to engage with external groups, I think they find there is a huge amount of interest."

One project at Sheffield under Linn's direction has seen archaeologists and historians work as consultants assisting a local council in reconstructing an old Sheffield manor house, the remains of which are on a council estate. Local people have been engaged with the project, and university expertise has led the reconstruction.

This kind of work can be morale-boosting for academics, Linn claims. "It's a case of realising their research has other applications, that there is a usefulness that makes their work more justifiable to themselves and to external scrutinisers, particularly at the moment when there is a sense that the impact of our research is going to become more and more significant."

Sometimes when the most unlikely disciplines are paired, the most surprising and important knowledge is generated. Clare Morgan, director of the graduate programme in creative writing at Kellogg College, Oxford, runs a course that introduces businesspeople to the joys of poetry. The project also allows Morgan to explore the relationship between poetry and business.

For businessmen and women, "the benefit of this is in terms of leadership, preparing the mind for complexity," she says. Morgan uses the work of writers including Ted Hughes and Billy Collins to help participants on the programme engage with poetry and learn how to think more reflectively. "As well as having a very serious individual development effect, there is a great deal also in terms of developing cross-cultural understanding in global organisations."

The scheme has also called on Morgan to think differently about the way she teaches. "There is a tendency to think you can discuss a poem in a business environment in the same way you could discuss a poem with an undergraduate seminar. It's a completely different audience."

A book, What Poetry Brings to Business, the first academic result of the project, will be published in 2010.

She believes the "exciting things" happening in the arts and humanities can be of benefit to all if opened up to a wider constituency. "What is generally referred to as pure research in the arts and humanities is fantastically valuable and it is essential that this kind of exciting research should continue for the intellectual health of the whole community. It seems timely that the potential for application might be explored more thoroughly than has been the case in the past."

In London, this potential is being explored en masse. Public funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England was made available to set up the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange (LCACE), a partnership between nine universities in the capital seeking to make academic expertise accessible to London's culture industry.

Sally Taylor, director of LCACE, is insistent on the word "exchange", as "knowledge transfer" suggests a rather authoritarian process of pushing academic expertise on to others, willingly or otherwise. "It's different from science and technology; for the most part it's about ideas. It's not about the fact that all kinds of knowledge exist within the universities, it's much more a two-way process and about collaboration."

What Taylor envisages is a harmonious relationship in which both academic and practitioner realise that once they abandon their mutual prejudices, they can actually learn from one another; they work better together than they do in isolation. For academics, this means stepping down from those ivory towers.

"Ideas and academics are different things. Sometimes academics get in the way of ideas. Sometimes academics do themselves no good at all by the way they work," she says.

So far LCACE has helped broker a web of relationships between artists and theorists, pairing academics with theatres, museums, arts centres and businesses. "We provide the ecology that helps this to happen. Universities should be putting themselves out there." The centre is curating Inside Out, a festival running from 19 to 25 October, which aims to showcase the contribution made to the capital's cultural economy by partner universities including King's College London and Goldsmiths, University of London.

Perhaps the most important exchange of information set up by LCACE is its series of joint PhD programmes, where doctoral students recruited by the universities work closely with a partner in the arts on a topic of interest to its business. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre offers joint PhDs with King's College London and Queen Mary, University of London.

Patrick Spottiswoode, director of education at Shakespeare's Globe, welcomed the chance to take on research partners specialising in Shakespearean theatre. He believes the theatre has a key role in developing new academics. "I'm hoping that we're helping to turn out a new generation of theatre scholars, as I'm hoping that this building is helping to turn out a new generation of actors and a new generation of theatre lovers," he says.

Doctoral students working at Shakespeare's Globe become part of a working academic community; they hold research seminars at the theatre and teach undergraduate-level students. Their research findings can influence the staging of plays, from direction to costume design and musical interludes.

The programme helps boost the intellectual integrity of both students and host. "We're able to give them a network of research scholars from other universities. The Globe is a meeting ground for leading scholars and graduates. It helps to create a research atmosphere here for us."

Yet LCACE has faced hurdles in getting such useful and exciting projects off the ground: finding the right people to work with, inspiring enthusiasm for cross-sectoral research, and dealing with some of the pettiness of higher education. "You have to be careful who you work with," Taylor explains. "London universities can be very competitive between themselves and we have to be aware of that and play to each of their strengths.

"Sometimes the really interesting work is done with the smaller companies. But the chances are that collaborative doctorate awards and bigger projects are more likely to be done with the big organisations and we do have a lot more of those in play. They are monoliths, and we do have to find the right person to work with."

At the University of Central Lancashire, Suzanne Hacking understands the frustrations. A senior research fellow in evidence-based practice, she has been leading knowledge-transfer projects in the region, funded through a four-university partnership to reach out to new communities. One particularly successful project, which recorded local history by asking older residents to commit their memories to audiotape, took off only after academics were convinced there was research value in the archive they were building up. They feared time taken away from academic teaching would be wasted, but the end product was useful to local historians and the resource is now in the ownership of a local history group. "The community got what it wanted and we got what we wanted," Hacking says.

Other projects hosted by Uclan have been less convincing, however. An exercise that helped young mothers in Lancashire write poetry to express their experiences has only served to exacerbate some academics' concerns about the value of knowledge transfer in the arts and humanities.

"I'm particularly sceptical about some of the projects," says James Ladyman, professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol. He worries that knowledge transfer takes academics away from their real vocation - dealing with complex issues and ideas.

"It's a waste of time and resources getting scholars who really want to be just dealing with the issues that their peers are interested in to insert knowledge-transfer and public-engagement events into their research.

"There are masses of people doing all that sort of thing - journalists and lifelong learning lecturers," he says. "If there is just a general drive to get out there into the community, we have to ask - why is it just academics doing this? Shouldn't it be teachers and further education lecturers? Why is it only people who have got PhDs?"

Of course nobody could object to academic engagement with the wider community in principle, but Ladyman worries that the Government is now expecting British academics to be everything to everyone. "There are good academic reasons for partnerships with museums and galleries, but that doesn't apply to everyone. All the time you're doing knowledge transfer, you're not doing something else. Academics are under pressure just with the immediate teaching and research they have to do. If you add the extra component that you have to be putting on public lectures and engaging with the wider community, then it's just something else that we have to do. There has been no real agreement that this rebalancing of our priorities is a good idea."

Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, shares Ladyman's fears. He questions the wisdom of shoehorning niche interests into a format aimed at the widest possible audience.

"If your subject is archaeology and you find some gold coins, you can and maybe should take part in some enterprise of showing them to the public in an exhibition or on a TV programme. Everyone can gawp at gold coins. But what if your subject is the influence of Duns Scotus on 14th-century scholasticism or the problems in two recent interpretations of Kant's deduction of self-consciousness in the Transcendental Aesthetic?" Blackburn asks.

"Nearly all academics like the thought of their ideas being appreciated in circles that are as wide as possible. However, for most of us there is a distinction between our 'real', cutting-edge research work and the business of disseminating what we hope might interest lay people about our subjects," says Blackburn. "You can't give an account of the value of the late quartets of Beethoven to someone who refuses to listen to them, or has no previous experience of listening to classical music. Academics account to their institutions, their peers, and their students."

Ladyman concurs, adding that he worries the abundance of funding available for knowledge transfer is leading to a distortion of the research agenda.

"There is such a pressure to get grants. In this funding environment there is so much competition; they say the absence of a knowledge-transfer component won't make any difference but we all know people are looking for a reason to reject an application rather than accept. People start to say: 'It's all very well doing this research on an 18th-century poet, but can you do a podcast on it?'."

The AHRC is aware of these concerns, and has reassured academics that research for its own sake - and for its academic merits alone - is still valued by the grant makers.

Amor says that although they try to encourage as many disciplines as possible to engage with a wider audience, sometimes - as in the case of the Duns Scotus research Blackburn cites - it does not make sense. "Within our guidance we say that for some research disciplines and for some research projects we acknowledge that it's going to be very difficult. If there are no foreseeable impacts, it's acceptable to say that with justification. Not every piece of research will necessarily have an impact beyond the discipline."

The environment Ladyman describes plays into the hands of LCACE, which acts as much like a consultancy firm as a broker of new relationships.

"The whole impact agenda and public value debate absolutely isn't going to go away. It's going to get bigger all the time," says LCACE's Taylor. "The tide is running in our direction. They are knocking on our door and asking 'how do I fill in that question?'."

Back at Uclan, Suzanne Hacking thinks she has solved the problem of academic reluctance. "Yes, academics dislike knowledge exchange if it seems there are no academic goals, but of course it's just a matter of making them look at it in a different way."


The play Angels with Manky Faces was a sellout at Manchester's intimate Library Theatre in August. It was no surprise: the work highlighted the topical issues of knife crime and gang culture in the city.

Yet the production, which was mounted by the MaD Theatre Company, is set in Victorian Manchester, and although it was written by the theatre company's directors, it is based on a major new piece of research by scholar Andrew Davies.

Senior lecturer in history at the University of Liverpool, Davies spent years researching the history of gangs in the city. Committed to knowledge transfer, he chose to publish his latest book, The Gangs of Manchester: The Story of the Scuttlers, with independent publisher Milo Books. "I wanted to try to get a wider audience for it than I would have received in a traditional academic publishing house," Davies says.

When he met Rob Lees, artistic director of MaD, through his involvement in a local non-league football team, the pair discussed basing a new production around his research.

"When my book was ready, I gave it to two people who ran the theatre group," Davies says. "I said if you want to write a play, that's your story. They used the book as inspiration for story lines but also for a lot of historical detail such as living conditions, employment opportunities and family relationships."

The play used a mix of on-stage action and videos to tell the story, and included songs and video footage from Manchester bands including The Smiths, Inspiral Carpets and Twisted Wheel. Actors were dressed in Victorian costumes, but the script saw the characters making use of contemporary Mancunian slang.

"We thought it would be a fantastic idea. We read his book and it's quite factual. We took certain elements and characters and gave them a life - a girlfriend, a mother and a job, and what they would do on a Friday night," says Lees. "What we also found was that even though it was about 1890-odd, it was just like today. Members of gangs would wear certain uniforms. Judges would blame the 'penny dreadful' novels the gang members read for their crimes, like they blame certain music stars now. We thought we could set this play in 1894 but make it very relevant to now."

Through the production, Davies was able to reach a much wider, non-academic audience with his research findings; not only educated theatregoers, but also those newer to the stage and to Manchester's history. "MaD is very much devoted to outreach. Their ethos is to put on theatre for people who don't normally go to the theatre," he says.

Davies, who says he received a lot of support in the venture from his institution, welcomes the increase in interest in knowledge exchange in arts and humanities subjects. "I think it's great that the universities are gearing up to pay more attention to this kind of outreach. What's really struck me is the great hunger out there for history. There is a vast audience in various circles interested in our subjects." He believes academic research itself will improve as a result of this kind of engagement.

For the MaD Theatre Company, this could be just the start of its working relationship with the academy. "We'd like to carry on this relationship," says Lees.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.