Just how can a centenarian rediscover its youthful aim?

June 28, 2002

The British Academy at 100 finds itself shorn of much of its research-granting powers and facing the prospect of becoming a self-perpetuating club for old folk. Harriet Swain reports on how it intends to shake itself up.

The British Academy may be 100 this year, but it has been facing something of a mid-life crisis. Having started as a select learned society, it now has the status that comes with age - contacts worldwide, a distinguished history and a beautiful central London home. But it is regularly accused of being out of touch and unrepresentative. Worse, its offspring, the Arts and Humanities Research Board, is set to become a research council, so the academy will lose the power and cash awarded to it in 1984 to administer postgraduate awards in the humanities.

"There has been a sense in which the AHRB's success has placed in question the raison d'être of the academy rather than as just a club of aged folk," says Jinty Nelson, president of the Royal Historical Society and a former vice-president of the academy.

She insists, nevertheless, that it has come back fighting, with a new emphasis on outreach work. Its only real problem, she suggests, is that it could do with more money. "The Royal Society can produce expert opinion and reports at short notice through its dedicated staff and database. We cannot because we don't have the same resources."

The academy has long been the poor relation of the Royal Society - and not just because it receives roughly half the government grant (£13 million compared with £26.5 million last year). If the society had been less sniffy about the humanities 100 years ago, the academy would never have existed. The spark was the UK's failure to come up with a representative body for "literary science" at the first meeting of the International Association of Academies in 1900. The Royal Society, which represented the UK in "natural science", considered whether it should enlarge its scope but rejected the idea. Instead, it approached other experts to set up a separate organisation. The result was that in August 1902 the British Academy received a royal charter, granted on the specific understanding that it would not preclude the Royal Society and the British Academy eventually joining together.

This has not happened, but the differences between the two academies remain primarily bureaucratic. The government stresses that its annual grant is to allow the British Academy to make provision for the humanities and social sciences to parallel that made by the Royal Society for the physical and biological sciences. They share the same values of intellectual inquiry, and one person, psychologist Philip Johnson-Laird, is a fellow of both. (Two honorary FBAs - former Oxford University chancellor Sir Rex Richards and statistician Sir Daniel Cox - are also Royal Society fellows.) The academy's move in 1998 to Carlton House Terrace - just a few doors down from its scientific counterpart - also brought them much closer together, especially when academy officers discovered the society's dining room.

Yet outside the academies, while science has surged ahead in terms of public popularity and the support of government, greedy for its contribution to the "knowledge economy", the humanities have faced something of a crisis. Traditional subjects are being hit by rising pressures to publish (for the research assessment exercise) amid a tighter publishing industry, government emphasis on vocational study and material outcomes from research, and the need to incorporate new technology. In addition, there have been problems in specific areas, such as modern languages, where undergraduate student numbers are down, having knock-on effects on postgraduate work in related subjects - European history, for example.

When the British Academy was set up, it had just 48 founding fellows (all men), charged with promoting historical, philosophical and philological studies. The number of fellows is now 729, of whom 84 are women, and its remit has been extended to include 18 different sections, including six from the social sciences. But it is operating in a very different world. Women are now a significant presence in the lecture halls. The contribution of clever young people is increasingly recognised: academics from outside the so-called golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London - even from institutions that were once polytechnics - are making their mark, and new subjects are becoming more prominent.

Like the Royal Society, which was recently grilled by a Commons select committee accusing it of elitism, the academy has been criticised for being behind the times. The common criticism is that the practice of existing fellows electing new ones can make it closed to outsiders and can concentrate membership on the golden triangle.

John Benyon, professor of political studies at the University of Leicester and treasurer of the Political Studies Association, says: "It is a great accolade to be elected to the British Academy, quite rightly, and the fellows jealously guard what they have. But the trouble with these bodies is that there is always the danger you become a bit narrow or self-perpetuating."

Sir Keith Thomas, a past president of the British Academy, says: "There is no point in pretending that intellectual distinction is evenly spread over universities or over the country. As soon as anyone in Hull, say, writes an important book and is elected to the British Academy, it is as likely as not that they will they move to Oxford or Cambridge." But although Martin Dodsworth, emeritus professor of English at Royal Holloway, University of London, concedes that there may be some truth in this, he says some recent appointments have been "quite difficult to justify". "The root problem is that it wants to be both an academy of scholars and a representative body," he says. He is also particularly critical of the fact that English has no section devoted to it, whereas history of art and archaeology do.

The dominance of history, which represents more than one-third of the humanities sections, is a common criticism, carrying suggestions of a bias towards the past that is not helped by the fellows' age. It is rare to reach the level of academic distinction needed for a fellowship under the age of 50 - the average age on election is 53. As fellows are fellows for life and as life expectancy increases, the proportion long retired from academia rises. Although retired fellows are not allowed to sit on the decision-making bodies, they are allowed to vote, which could affect the chances of young candidates in up-and-coming areas of study.

The British Academy insists that it has been working hard to embrace change. It has held three internal reviews in the past ten years on the issues of gender, the golden triangle and over-concentration on ancient subjects. "We can show clear evidence that in all three contexts there has been rapid change," says Tony Wrigley, president until last year. For example, of the 90 appointments to the postdoctoral fellowship scheme made in his last three years as president, 45 were to women and 45 to men. Women made up 15 per cent of the new tranche of fellows, slightly higher than the percentage holding senior university posts, and some grants now include funding for childcare.

Meanwhile, formal consultations have just begun with vice-chancellors at universities all over the country soliciting suggestions for new fellows. The academy is also to conduct a study on endangered and emerging subject areas and is expanding its new policy studies unit. Its latest project is a study to quantify the contribution of the humanities and social sciences to the UK's knowledge economy.

Underlying all this is a drive to raise public understanding of the humanities and social sciences, which ranges from projects such as a new book prize for accessible academic writing to public discussions and a new internet-based media service to increase press coverage of research stories.

Wrigley insists that the AHRB's transformation into a research council will also be welcome because the academy's involvement in funding research students in the humanities had emphasised its links with the humanities at the expense of the social sciences. Now it is clear that it treats both branches equally. This means that the academy can now develop its research-council role in other ways - concentrating on its strengths of small publishing projects, distributing smaller grants and funding individual scholars rather than research teams.

In some ways, the crisis in the humanities may also have been exaggerated. The creative industries is the fastest growing sector of the British economy, and the government's recognition of this is clear from its recent creative industries task force, substantially increased funding for the Economic and Social Research Council, proposed creation of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and last year's review of infrastructure needs for teaching and research in the arts and humanities. The Council for Science and Technology, which advises the prime minister, also published a report last year on imagination and the arts and humanities in relation to science.

Cross-overs between the arts and the sciences are increasing. Although the humanities is having to embrace technology - and benefiting considerably from it - many scientific advances are raising the kind of ethical and social problems that humanities subjects are best equipped to address.

With characteristic directness, Bob May, president of the Royal Society, says the notion that the British Academy and Royal Society represent "two cultures" is "silly". For him, the only intellectual division should be between the humane, inquiring culture fostered by both academies and the authoritarian, fundamentalist one of people dogmatic in their beliefs. "In some ways it would have been nicer if they had decided to enlarge the Royal Society rather than create something separate," he says. But perhaps regularly shared lunches and conversations are more effective in building a common culture.

What the British Academy does

In addition to its £13 million grant from the government, the British Academy also benefits from small private endowments, fellows' contributions and research foundations.

This year, the academy will dispense £5,853,000, of which £2,160,000 will go on research grants, £868,000 on research projects and £2,825,000 on research posts.

It also awards about 1,000 research grants a year, ranging from small grants of up to £5,000 to some of up to £20,000 for more expensive pilot projects, field study for periods of up to three years and to extend existing research activity.

The emphasis is on giving money to individuals rather than to institutions or teams of researchers.

The academy contributes to travel expenses for scholars delivering key papers at conferences abroad, helps with the costs of supporting key speakers from overseas at UK conferences and helps major subject areas or disciplines to hold congresses in the UK when it is Britain's turn.

It appoints 30 postdoctoral fellowships a year, tenable for three years, for scholars who have recently completed doctoral study to help them with independent research and to boost their academic job prospects. This year, the academy received 554 applications.

It funds 13 research readerships each year, tenable for two years, for scholars in mid-career, and three research professorships, tenable for three years, for senior scholars.

This year, the academy will spend £4,178,000 on international activities, including collaborative research projects and individual visits, with grants ranging from up to £2,500 to promote exchanges to £10,000 for international symposia.

It also funds visiting professorships, fellowships and lectureships and maintains links with academic institutions around the world.

It will spend £269,825 on other activities, such as representing the interests of learning and research in the humanities and social sciences, promoting public understanding of scholarship through, for example, its annual book prize, publishing the results of research, and recognising excellence in scholarship through its award of fellowships.

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