Learned but weak?

June 28, 2002

Rid of its funding role, the British Academy has more time for scholarship and global collaborations. But will giving up the purse strings lead to a loss of influence at home? Nicholas Mann writes.

In the continuing debate about the various allegedly ivory towers that overshadow the groves of academe, the British Academy and its sister body, the Royal Society, occupy a special and frequently misunderstood place. The misunderstanding probably springs as much as anything else from a typically British compromise: the juxtaposition of learned society and funding body.

Given the sovereign disregard with which intellectual entities are generally treated in this country, nobody would probably pay much attention to the academy in so far as it is a learned society concerned with honouring the highest academic achievement in the humanities and social sciences. But because it has had a significant role in the funding of research in those areas, and was until recently the principal channel enabling public funds to flow to the humanities, it has attracted a good deal of not always friendly attention.

But rather than pursuing that particular hare, I want to attempt to redress the balance by viewing the British Academy as a card-carrying member of the modern Republic of Letters, and to sketch out its position and role in the international scheme of things.

The concept of an academy is an ancient one, but one that, in the modern world, has been stretched to cover a wide variety of sins. At one extreme, one might cite some of the tiny local learned societies that are still a significant component of Italian intellectual life, focused on one city and one discipline. At the other extreme, symbolised by the gigantic tiered towers that still mark the skylines of some capital cities, are the relics of the Soviet-style academies of sciences, powerful bureaucracies determining the direction of the whole range of academic disciplines, with an infrastructure of institutes employing thousands of people.

The British Academy is much closer to the original model of a learned society. Even in the heyday of its role as the principal distributor of funds for research in the humanities and social sciences, it never had the resources or the functions of a research council, and it was only when it deliberately divested itself of the major part of its funding role by establishing what became the Arts and Humanities Research Board that it became evident that in the 21st century a research council for those disciplines was necessary and possible.

The academy still, however, has a significant funding role, in particular in relation to its international partners. The longest-standing agreements with foreign academies date back to the cold war period and were focused on those countries with which it was most difficult to maintain scholarly contact. The exchange agreements that allowed scholars from behind the Iron Curtain to come to Britain, and British scholars to travel in the other direction, were of great value in maintaining intellectual links and in supporting research in countries where books were in short supply and the movement of people and ideas was restricted. But today the map of Europe has changed, and with it the role of the academy.

First, the ever-widening European Union has brought new opportunities for scholarly collaboration, and even new streams of funding. Second, there has been a considerable rise in the number of organisations that bring together academics of different nationalities either in support of major collaborative projects or in pursuit, as in the case of Allea (All European Academies), of policy issues of international significance. Some of these bodies have a more intellectual agenda than others, and in this respect stand alongside the many international disciplinary associations. The British Academy plays its part in their deliberations and is, through its representatives on these various bodies and its academic and administrative input into their efforts, involved in the shaping of that part of the projected European Research Area that properly belongs to the humanities and social sciences.

The concentration of resources in countries that were once part of the Eastern Bloc but that are now rapidly becoming part of a greater Europe is therefore giving way to a new policy of expanding horizons; the academy is exploring new links with countries (and indeed whole areas of the globe, such as Latin America) where there have hitherto been none. And at the same time, the pattern of funding has changed: the emphasis on exchange visits is increasingly being replaced by the support of joint projects and activities, encouraging collaborative work between scholars in different countries. In this context, the academy does not try to establish an agenda or to impose so-called priorities: the emphasis remains on "bottom-up" research, reflecting the enthusiasms and energies of the individuals conducting it.

The Estonian Academy has recently freed itself of its institutes and reverted to the learned-society model without losing any prestige: in a small country, intellectuals and scientists are held in sufficient regard for the academy to have the ear of government (even if it does not always listen). The comparison is instructive: the British Academy is making increasing efforts to speak for the whole academic community on a wide range of issues of public concern. But as the funds shift increasingly to the AHRB, and as that body moves towards research council status, there is a real danger that the academy's voice will not be heard at home, while it is increasingly listened to abroad.

Nicholas Mann is foreign secretary and a vice-president of the British Academy. He is leading a session on the role of academies and learned societies in intellectual life in the 21st century at the British Academy's centenary conference, July 3-5.

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