THE FIRST step towards a research council for the arts was taken this week with the announcement of an Arts and Humanities Research Board.
Money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland will help set up the board, which will not include Scotland or Wales.
It will build on the work of the British Academy's Humanities Research Board and will allocate research grants as well as postgraduate awards.
But sensitive talks are still continuing between the British Academy, the Department for Education and Employment and representative bodies about where the board should be and how it should be staffed and organised.
HEFCE is believed to want a clear distinction made between the old and new boards, with changes in personnel. The British Academy is likely to favour more continuity.
Michael Jubb, the academy's deputy secretary, said: "For a transitional period it will have to continue at the academy because that is where the experience and expertise lie."
HEFCE has agreed to provide Pounds 8 million to the new board next year and a further Pounds 15.5 million in 1999-2000. The board will also take over responsibility for the Pounds 9 million a year special funding for museums and galleries, making a total of Pounds 41.5 million from HEFCE over two years. The BA will put in the Pounds 19 million a year that now funds postgraduate awards.
Other potential funders will also be approached. One possible donor may be the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. There is also likely to be pressure on the government to signal permanent funding for the board in the comprehensive spending review.
Continued exclusion of Scotland and Wales could be a problem, particularly if the board evolves into a research council. Devolution legislation assumes all research councils will be national bodies. The research assessment exercise could also be distorted by different arrangements within the United Kingdom for distributing funds.
Humanities academics believe the inclusion of practical arts subjects in the new research board could help change the way research is viewed and so have an effect on the RAE. Until now, the BA has not included in its remit activities such as creative writing and language teaching, in spite of lobbying.
HEFCE chief executive Brian Fender said: "We see this as a significant step towards setting up a research council and putting support for research in the arts and humanities on a similar footing to other disciplines."