Arts given a research council

April 1, 2005

Arts and humanities researchers were given their own research council this week, putting the discipline on an equal footing with the sciences.

From April 1, the sector will be funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which will replace the former board of the same name. The creation of the council - part of the Higher Education Act 2004 - will push arts and humanities research up the political agenda.

Geoff Crossick, chief executive of the AHRB, said: "After 40 years shut out from the world of the research councils, the importance of the arts and humanities to the economic, cultural and social wellbeing of the UK has at last been recognised."

He added: "The AHRB has in just six years created a whole new culture of team-based research, belying the notion that all the arts and humanities needed was a pen and paper."

So, what sort of projects might impress the new council? The Times Higher looks at three different environmental projects that have won cash from the AHRB.



Case study one

Women who want to follow fashion and save the environment should consider switching to sexy paper knickers that can be disposed of in their own wormery, according to AHRB researcher Kate Fletcher.

Dr Fletcher of Goldsmiths, University of London was funded to explore sustainability in women's clothing - without ignoring the demands of fashion.

Dr Fletcher said that it was inevitable that people would be fashion conscious. "Historically, sustainable clothing has followed the hemp and sackcloth look that left people very uninspired."

Dr Fletcher's brand of eco-fashion categorises clothes as either fast or slow. A "fast" top might be something bought for a party, never to be worn again.

She argued that such items need not be made of material that would last for years, advocating "lacy" paper tops or the use of a clothes lending service.

"Slow" clothes could include a winter coat. "Coats are discarded not because the material is defunct but because the style has gone out of fashion," Dr Fletcher explained.

"We could supply people with ideas for alterations that could bring it in line with current fashion - such as making baggy sleeves narrower."

She is determined to give people constructive ideas rather than simply wagging her finger at consumers.

She said: "You shouldn't just tell people that they can't wear polyester."

Case study two

Many stressed city dwellers would agree that a walk through the Scottish Highlands, where you may not see another person for hours on end, comes somewhere close to perfection.

But researchers at the AHRB Centre for Environmental History are questioning this 21st-century view.

Fiona Watson, director of the centre, which is based at Stirling and St Andrews universities, said: "People are wandering over what they take to be relatively untouched land, but the picture used to be very different."

In previous centuries, sheep and cattle would have been grazing over the hills, with farmers often living in the uplands for months at a time during the busy summer season.

"The hills would have been ringing with people," she said.

Dr Watson said she did not want to turn the clock back and realised that people no longer wanted to spend all day every day in the hills trying to make a living from the land.

But she argued that turning the hills into a wasteland without people or animals might be far from ideal.

"I like wild places without people in," she admitted. "But this is very much a modern desire that comes out of our own particular world view. It is not an absolute. And it should be open to debate."

Case study three

Architects will soon be able to design glamorous glass houses with walls tougher than concrete, thanks to new techniques pioneered by AHRB award holder Jim Roddis of Sheffield Hallam University.

Professor Roddis, who has two patents under his belt, is head of the university's Cultural Research Institute. He wanted to make glass that could be used for structural walls without harming the environment.

But designing the right material was only part of the problem. Professor Roddis pointed out that architects were somewhat "distanced" from the sustainability agenda.

To get the practitioners on side he involved them in focus groups, evaluating his new material - which just happened to be made largely of waste glass from the automotive, consumer and construction industries - as he developed it.

The result is a material that looks like glass but is stronger than standard concrete, and in some cases tougher than special high-strength concrete.

It paves the way for internally lit, translucent buildings, with the new glass-like material replacing anything that would have been made from reinforced concrete.

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