With the global economy in turmoil, government funding for research projects has become increasingly scarce worldwide. This has been particularly marked in the arts and humanities, an issue that David Lloyd, dean of research at Trinity College Dublin, is keen to highlight.
"In recent years, the distribution of national research funding has probably been 80 per cent for sciences, 12 per cent for social sciences and only 8 per cent for the arts," Lloyd says.
"There is thus a tenfold difference between what the sciences get and what the arts and humanities get and that can't be sustained. There needs to be a balancing out if we're going to place an importance on culture in society. The current situation is a bit of a travesty."
Lloyd has a biochemistry background, while Trinity College's provost, John Hegarty, is a physicist and Patrick Prendergast, the vice-provost, is a specialist in biomechanics engineering. Yet all three are agreed on the importance of the arts and humanities, both in academe and in society generally.
"No matter what our academic backgrounds are, we're all immersed in the arts and humanities in our cultural lives and we all have an appreciation of it," Prendergast says. "I don't believe in C. P. Snow's 'two cultures' concept. To me, this is a simplistic understanding of human endeavour and academic research."
The question is how to translate this belief that all academic disciplines are not only equally important, but interconnected, into modern and viable research models. This is a challenge that Trinity College hopes the Trinity Long Room Hub will go some way towards addressing.
An evolution in arts and humanities research, which enables a traditional discipline to remain relevant and contemporary, is to be welcomed. How it is to be funded, though, is another matter.
"The arts and humanities need to find a new way of operating and becoming self-sustaining, so we must diversify. The government needs to start seeing investing in the arts and humanities as an investment in the country's future, but we're also looking to philanthropy," Hegarty says.
Partnerships with cultural institutions, including museums, galleries and libraries, afford arts and humanities researchers greater opportunities for engagement with the public, opportunities that Hegarty is keen to see Trinity College embrace. In addition to these partnerships, the provost advocates "stronger engagements with the creative industries". Prendergast agrees. "It is important that we reach out to industry and try to collaborate by showing industry what we can do. We can achieve this by showcasing the talents of our staff and students. We want to enable organic collaborations by facilitating interactions between the academic community and industry."
Prendergast says his aim is for "the Trinity Long Room Hub to become a beacon for this kind of collaboration. I want industry to think of the Trinity Long Room Hub straight away as a place to find arts and humanities researchers to work with on developing projects and problem solving."
Anil Kokaram's research work on restoring damaged film has developed into an important innovation for the multibillion-dollar film industry and is a stellar example of what such collaborations can achieve. An associate professor in Trinity College's department of electronic and electrical engineering, Kokaram's digital film restoration methods were used to create special effects on films such as The Matrix Reloaded, King Kong and Casino Royale, and earned him and his collaborators an Academy Award in 2007.
His early consultancy work with The Foundry, an external media company, is now a long-term relationship and has evolved into collaborative stereo post-production work for the new generation of 3D films such as Avatar.
At the same time, his team's restoration work continues. A project with film historian and professor of drama at Trinity College Kevin Rockett will see the release this month of six films after extensive digital repair work. The films, made between 1910 and 1913, are important parts of Ireland's cultural heritage, Kokaram says. Although some of the films were made into DVDs a decade ago, they have not been widely seen since the 1920s, he estimates. "There is an interesting connection between the preservation of cultural heritage and hardcore mathematics."
The Trinity Long Room Hub's approach is innovative, but contemporary research culture at Trinity College has been influenced by international academic developments as well. Prendergast recalls: "I was particularly impressed by the way the PhD is done in the Netherlands. Graduate study often involves students putting together a curriculum of courses in universities around the country and they study and research in a very collaborative and interactive way. As the island of Ireland is relatively small, this is something I would like to see us doing here. I would like students to be able to take advantage of the specialist skills and expertise of members of the faculty in universities around the country."
It is hoped that the Trinity Long Room Hub development will facilitate knowledge transfer through the digitisation of archives, as well as in the creation of new platforms for education in virtual learning environments. These strategies will work in tandem with the creation of a cutting-edge Innovation Academy for PhD researchers.
The Trinity College Dublin-University College Dublin Innovation Academy will coordinate generic and discipline-specific training for some Graduate Research Education Programmes, and has been established as a component of the TCD-UCD Innovation Alliance.
According to Hegarty: "When students complete a PhD they will have gone very deep into their particular topic, but the Innovation Academy will ensure that they have acquired a sense of the wider world and of what they can do with their skills and new knowledge."
The Innovation Academy will encourage interdisciplinary collaboration from an early stage in a student's research career. Lloyd notes: "In the Innovation Academy we are bringing together people from different disciplines and putting them all into the mix to solve a series of problems that can't be addressed by an individual but could be addressed by an interdisciplinary team. The Innovation Academy will imbue problem solving with creativity."
The Dutch model that impressed Prendergast is also in evidence in future plans for the Innovation Academy. "We are hoping the model will roll out nationally," Lloyd says. "We will make the content available to anyone who wants it and we'll train trainers who want to bring this model back to their universities."
Ultimately, he says, producing skilled, ICT- and business-savvy arts and humanities graduates is the key to ensuring long-term sustainability for arts and humanities research. Equipped with creative, independent thought, self-motivation and innovation, it is hoped that future generations of PhD graduates and post-doctoral researchers will go further in exploring the potential for the role of arts and humanities in modern society, the economy and in industry.
Prendergast says: "We shouldn't try to second-guess where PhDs will end up. They may create their own jobs in the knowledge industries of the future, and this is something we want to support."
Such support is vital not only for sustaining arts and humanities research in the future but for capitalising on opportunities for society as a whole. Lloyd concludes: "There are new markets to come out of this, and if we're not producing the graduates with the appropriate skills and training, then we're going to miss out on being part of them."