Building bloc for arts and humanities

July 24, 1998

THE establishment of the Arts and Humanities Research Board opens a new era in research for a large and diverse body of academic disciplines. For many years scholars have lamented the absence of a research council for the arts and humanities to go alongside the Economic and Social Research Council.

The board is a significant step in the desired direction. It results from an important initiative by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, providing funds for project research in the arts and humanities. The board succeeds the Humanities Research Board, which operated with much smaller resources under the aegis of the British Academy. The academy has collaborated fully in the enterprise, transferring its postgraduate studentships and professional and vocational awards to the board. It is also redesigning its research programmes to make them complementary to those administered by the new board.

The structure brings together the creative and performing arts and humanities in recognition of their common interests and increasing scope for interdisciplinary scholarship. For the arts especially, which have not previously had such access to project research funds, this presents an eagerly awaited opportunity. It also increases the resources available. The HRB had only Pounds 2.5 million a year for advanced research. The new board will have Pounds 8.2 million in the current year and Pounds 15.9 million in the next, as well as Pounds 9 million directed to museums and art galleries in higher education institutions as a HEFCE special initiative. With the addition of Pounds 19.3 million for postgraduate awards, the new board's total budget for 1999-2000 will be more than Pounds 44 million.

There are, of course, limitations. The fully-fledged Arts and Humanities Research Council recommended by Dearing will have to wait on a decision by the government in the light of its comprehensive spending review. Moreover, in the support of advanced research, the board's remit will be for the present restricted to scholars employed in institutions in England and Northern Ireland. The arts and humanities will still lack, therefore, the kind of research council that nurtures (and after devolution will continue to nurture) the research culture of the United Kingdom as a whole.

The board builds on the experience, expertise and personnel of the HRB, but it will include members to reflect the broader concerns of the new body. It will seek to apply properly exacting standards in a transparent fashion that respects the distinctive and diverse nature of its subject domain. It will report to a funding group representing the British Academy, the Department of Education for Northern Ireland and HEFCE, together with any other bodies that may in future contribute funds or relevant expertise.

Sums available for awards in the arts and humanities respectively will be fixed by the funding group.

Initially, the board will rely on tried and tested schemes adapted to the expanded constituency. In the longer term the scale of funding proposed will enable the board to influence the overall direction of research in the arts and humanities. Its emphasis will be on work supported by institutions (with the academy continuing to award fellowships and small grants for individual scholars), but there is no intention to force research into any one mould. Large research grants for collaborative projects within and between institutions, as well as research leave and institutional fellowships of the kind financed by the HRB and the higher education funding councils, will continue to be awarded in responsive mode. The originality and scholarly rigour of arts and humanities research will be the prime criteria in assessing applications.

The establishment of the new board offers a major opportunity to enhance the visibility of such research and public awareness of its value. Researchers sometimes feel frustrated that their contribution to the wider community is not fully recognised. Research in the arts and humanities plays a large part in national as well as international perceptions of Britain's achievements. It makes direct contributions to many of the creative and cultural industries, which do so much to support the country's economic and social well-being. The numerous students, scholars and other visitors who are attracted to these shores bring tangible as well as intangible benefits.

Research in the arts and humanities provides the intellectual underpinning for a variety of activities in public administration, the media, and education and training. In a rounded and civilised society it is not only invaluable but indispensable.

Like the HRB before it, but with a strong sense of its commitment to a wider constituency and a more ambitious mission, the new board will strive to meet the high standards that will be expected of it.

Paul Langford is chairman of the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

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