Arts disciplines make their case to minister for science

David Willetts tells the British Academy that the government values its work. Matthew Reisz reports

September 23, 2010

A debate organised by the British Academy gave academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences a chance to put the case for their disciplines to the minister for universities and science.

Historian Peter Hennessy, Attlee professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary, University of London, introduced the discussion, "Arts, humanities and social sciences: why should we care?", by noting that it can be "hard to justify (these areas) in terms of productivity and competitiveness. No one dies if we fail to mark essays."

Nonetheless, he said he regarded the minister, David Willetts, as a friend to their subjects and called for "candour all round".

Geoffrey Crossick, vice-chancellor of the University of London, stressed the country's world-leading position in the creative industries.

These industries are "dominated by graduates", he said. And "profits will come from the creative content rather than the technology. The vibrant cultural scene is much cited by tourists as a reason for coming to Britain. It would be crazy to abandon one of the few areas where the UK is truly strong."

Dame Hazel Genn, dean of the Faculty of Laws at University College London, argued that the social sciences provide crucial insights into helping people to change their behaviour, whether in relation to obesity or climate change. She said this tended to be far more effective than legislation by "assumption, anecdote and atrocity stories" that had been common in the area of criminal justice.

Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy, said that the natural role of the state in funding research was widely recognised in other countries.

Mr Willetts responded that his recent book, The Pinch: How The Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - and Why They Should Give It Back, had "shamelessly drawn" on social science research, and that "the government had no desire to pick on the arts, humanities and social sciences. The need for reductions in public spending doesn't mean we are reductionists who believe only in the physical sciences."

But he reminded the audience that many big projects in the physical sciences, where British researchers worked as part of international groups, were governed by treaty obligations that could not be abandoned easily.

Mr Willetts also said that his conservative instincts led him to value "the shape of canons". In the sciences, people start to engage with cutting-edge material only once they have worked through a body of core understanding. He suspected that literary studies, for example, did not always work in the same way.

An audience member asked how it could be ensured that universities across the country do not all drop the same subjects. Mr Willetts replied that universities are independent institutions that must address this issue themselves.

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