AHRB prepares for demanding debut

October 23, 1998

The new Arts and Humanities Research Board plans to fight for more funds, raise recognition for its scholars' work and eventually become a research council. Harriet Swain reports

Paul Langford's oak-panelled study at Lincoln College, Oxford used to belong to John Wesley, who founded Methodism. Here, the chairman of the new Arts and Humanities Research Board snatches a moment between frequent trips to London to talk about hard work - and hard cash.

He describes the new board and the extra money devoted to it as "something of a defining moment" for the arts and humanities. It offers, for the first time, the chance for an overall research strategy in these subjects. But it is only the beginning. Over the next few months, as the board establishes itself, Langford and his team intend to campaign for more money, ensure that arts and humanities research is treated on a par with scientific research and, eventually, achieve the ultimate prize of a research council.

The disadvantages of not being a research council have already become clear. The comprehensive spending review raised maintenance grants for postgraduate students funded through the research councils by Pounds 1,000.

The result, Langford says, is that a classicist doing doctoral research will, as from this October, receive Pounds 1,000 less than a social scientist doing research in the same institution. "I am quite confident that if we had been a research council as Dearing recommended we would have been treated the same," he says.

Some expected the government to announce research council status for the new board over the summer. Langford believes it is only a matter of time before it does, and board members assume that it will happen.

The groundwork was laid by Sir Ron Dearing, who recommended last year that "a new arts and humanities research council should be established as soon as possible". He wanted such a board to be located with one of the other research councils to share costs, and he judged that funds for such a council should be about Pounds 45 million-Pounds 50 million a year. This would mean about Pounds 25 million in extra funds because the British Academy's Humanities Research Board already distributed just over Pounds 21 million a year, of which Pounds 2.5 million supported advanced research.

In the event, ministers approved a board charged with running research in the arts and humanities and gave it Pounds 8 million extra in the first year, 1998-99, Pounds 15.5 million next year and more promised for 2000-01. The board was also to take over Pounds 9 million special funding for museums and galleries. One of its first tasks would be to raise extra cash from outside sources, such as government - the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is an obvious candidate - or from business.

The board has four non-academic members, who, Langford says "will act as ambassadors for us and, in the other direction, for representatives of other interests and stakeholders".

Its duties are twofold. First, it inherits from the HRB responsibility for postgraduate student programmes. They will continue to be administered from the British Academy offices at Carlton House Terrace in London. This work is unlikely to change much in the short term, except in one specific area. Langford says the quota system behind professional and vocational award schemes run by the HRB over the past two years for the Department for Education and Employment will need examination.

The board's other, and new, duty will be project research. In this, it will continue to offer scholarships and to subsidise research leave, as the HRB has, but with more resources. It is also likely to set up centres aimed at generating new kinds of research, particularly interdisciplinary projects.

The board will also focus on chronically underfunded areas and aim to subsidise ongoing equipment costs. Information technology is sure to have increasing and expensive impact on these subjects, and the board is already talking to the arts and humanities data service to develop new ideas.

Generally, Langford predicts more emphasis on collaborations and teamwork, with money for particular projects rather than particular institutions, as well as for the traditional lone scholar.

Although the board met for the first time only last week, its first deadline - for research grants subsidising work in the current financial year - has already passed. By September 30, it had received 283 applications, of which 97 were for arts-based subjects and 186 for humanities. Other deadlines applying to the next financial year are November 30 and December 31. Decisions on the first applications should be made known by the year's end.

The budget will, in effect, be ring-fenced, with 23 per cent going to arts and performing arts and 77 per cent to the humanities. In the early years, projects will be able to carry money forward into the following financial year.

While things have been moving fast over the past year, they have not always gone smoothly. Some have questioned the source of the extra money. Langford argues that it has, in effect, been top-sliced from the Higher Education Funding Council for England's QR funding for the arts so no one has lost out. Others are concerned about the idea of any top-slicing at all. In addition, Scotland and Wales have not yet agreed to become involved, putting a cloud over any move to a full research council.

The board will have key policy questions to consider - about the place of research in the creative arts, about crossing boundaries between postgraduate studentships and project research, and about where any future arts and humanities research council should be based. But for Langford, all of this means that the importance of arts and humanities research to public life is at last being recognised.

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