John Laver, chairman of the British Academy's humanities research board, last autumn wrote an article in The THES deploring the "funding starvation" which militated against collaborative research in the humanities.
While interdisciplinary research often offered the most productive and innovative outcomes, he said, research in the humanities was prevented from realising its full potential by lack of money.
Unlike any other discipline, the humanities lack the dual support system of funding council and research council, and institutions which want to launch interdisciplinary research centres or exploit the riches of a special collection can do this only through their own resources. This effectively limits the vast majority of research projects to individual academics who are supported by the block grant.
The British Academy set up a humanities research board last year following the Government's steadfast refusal to establish a humanities research council. And as the board passes its first anniversary, it can take pride in winning support from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for a new fellowship scheme to promote collaborative research.
HEFCE is providing the bulk of the funding for an initial five years, with annual contributions of Pounds 500,000, rising to Pounds 750,000 in the second and subsequent years. The scheme aims to support academics involved in collaborative work in English higher education institutions over two or three years, working together in a single discipline, or doing multi-disciplinary work across subjects.
In the coming session, 16 fellows will be given an average Pounds 35,000 each for the first year, and there are hopes of numbers rising to a total of more than 50 new and continuing fellowships in the third year, when the scheme will be reviewed.
Universities and higher education colleges are being invited to bid for two or three fellowships linked to collaborative research programmes, and this can include joint bids from more than one institution. Where proposals involve establishing collaborative research centres, institutions will have to show that they will continue to support staff when the new scheme's funding ends.
Professor Laver stressed that the scheme is open to applications from any quarter, allaying fears that the board prefers old universities to new, or is dazzled by the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London universities.
"We will judge applications on standards of quality without prejudice to the sort of institution that originated them. Our mission is to be responsive to quality wherever we find it, not to aggregate money in particular institutions."
The scheme is likely to expand. The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, supported by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, is currently lobbying the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council for similar support.
Professor Laver himself hopes to boost the board's Pounds 16 million budget with approaches to bodies such as the European Commission, charities, museums and libraries. He has an enviable record in fundraising: as professor of phonetics at Edinburgh University, he raised Pounds 12 million over a decade for the university's centre for speech technology research.
And his own background, rooted in the humanities, but drawing on engineering and the natural sciences, has perhaps made him more appreciative than many arts experts of the potential of a multidisciplinary approach.
Phonetics stands at the intersection of all subjects concerned with speech, he says, and he believes that the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences form a continuum rather than being sharply segmented.
He has embarked on discussions with the Economic and Social Research Council over the potential for joint funding, in order to help academics whose research straddles the fence between the research councils and the British Academy. This could offer a better safety net for academics at the social science end of the humanities, such as applied linguistics, education, and some aspects of history, he believes.