British Academy will raise its voice in the public world

We must 'bring the best of social science to the attention' of all, new president tells Matthew Reisz

July 30, 2009

The new president of the British Academy, Sir Adam Roberts, has begun his tenure stating his intention to expand the part played by the academy in the wider world.

A distinguished expert in international law and security, who has supervised elections in Bosnia and Kosovo, and acted as an adviser to the United Nations and the Red Cross, he is firmly committed to increasing the academy's public role. A key tool will be a new policy centre, designed "to bring the best of social science to the attention of the public and Government".

This will sometimes be through a report on a matter of public interest, he said, such as the policy implications of changing family structures. Yet Sir Adam, speaking to Times Higher Education in his second week in the post, said he was also "aware of the serious hazards of public advocacy".

"Some forms can involve courtier-like behaviour or saying what those in power want to hear. Or they can involve superficiality - a desire to get to a policy recommendation rather than to understand a subject in all its complexity," he said. "The types of area where we can usefully contribute to public discussion are perhaps going to be different from some of the think-tanks."

There can also be difficulties in determining what is relevant or useful in advance, he said.

For example, in 1992 it was anthropologists, having spent years studying the esoteric details of Somali clan structures, who "were able to comment intelligently on what an international intervention might - and, more important, might not - be able to achieve" in the country, which was then facing a humanitarian crisis.

This year's tranche of 38 new BA fellows includes authorities on autism, Anglo-Saxon and African languages, medieval music and medieval Sicily, as well as homelessness, race relations, terrorism and urban planning.

But is this not largely the more traditional end of research in the social sciences and humanities?

Sir Adam acknowledged "the double risk, either that the academy might actually be a self-perpetuating oligarchy within each particular subject or that we might be perceived that way". A number of recent initiatives - such as inviting vice-chancellors to suggest candidates from within their own universities and requiring a completely external assessment before anyone is elected to a fellowship - should have reduced this risk.

But Sir Adam also plans to examine whether scholarship in fields such as popular culture, education and management is adequately represented within the BA's cadre of almost 900 fellows.

If there remains "a high representation" of fellows based in Oxbridge and London, Sir Adam suggests this can be justified by "the not dissimilar statistics of the research assessment exercise".

"But that should never stop us from looking extremely hard elsewhere," he said. "The question is, 'What more should be done to assure parity of consideration?' All the changes we have introduced have worked in that direction."

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