High-impact performances

March 12, 2009

The AHRC wants help refining its proposals, but its integrated vision of research will not shift, Zoë Corbyn writes

A new approach to the funding of arts and humanities research would effectively result in pots of money for blue-skies and strategic projects being combined.

The strategy by the Arts and Humanities Research Council is set out in a formal consultation document, Future Directions for Arts and Humanities Research, which also asks academics for feedback on 15 key issues to help iron out some details.

"The document is setting out the council's vision for the future, but there are quite a few areas where we still need community involvement because we think further work needs to be done," said Shearer West, director of research at the AHRC. "That is where we are asking for help."

At the heart of the document, and not up for negotiation, is a new vision that has already been consulted on and approved by the AHRC's council.

It aims to move away from the "unhelpful and misleading" notion that blue-skies or curiosity-driven research is antithetical to strategic or directed research.

Professor West said: "We have a lot of blues-skies research coming through strategic programmes. To think about it as completely separate has been unhelpful."

Replacing the old approach will be a new system of categorisation that groups the whole of arts and humanities research into four principal areas. These are: "history, thought and systems of belief", which encompasses study of how people lived in the past, their spirituality, morality and ethics; "creative and performing arts"; "languages and literatures"; and "cultures and heritage".

Alongside this, the strategy document outlines four mechanisms by which research in these four areas will be funded. These are research grants for large collaborative projects, fellowships for individuals undertaking focused work, studentships to train future generations, and networks to develop new relationships and foster the exchange of ideas.

Professor West said the goal was to develop a "continuum approach" in which individual research is not separated from collaborative research and in which researchers can draw on different mechanisms at different stages in their careers.

The proposals also contain a strong emphasis on the economic impact of research.

Like all research councils, the AHRC will shortly introduce requirements for its researchers to provide economic-impact summaries when they lodge proposals.

The consultation document discusses four types of impact that arts and humanities research can have - social, cultural, policy and monetary.

"It is partly translating the idea of economic impact for arts and humanities researchers and helping them understand what it signifies for us," Professor West said.

"I want arts and humanities researchers to embrace the impact agenda because we have an excellent story to tell that will raise our profile in this rather complicated time."

As well as setting out its vision for the future of research funding in its field, the document also asks researchers a number of questions.

They range from which broad research themes the council should consider funding in the future - with possibilities such as "understanding emotional life" and "collaborations and gangs" mooted - to how to raise the profile of arts and humanities research among all the research councils.

Other questions include what national facilities are needed and what approach the AHRC should take to help scholars squeeze more economic impact out of their work.

"We hope to have more of a brokerage role in helping the academic community realise the impact of its work," Professor West said, adding that the council was keeping an "open mind" on the questions it had asked and would address the results of the consultation at a meeting in June.

However, the AHRC may find that winning support for its bold vision is an uphill battle.

Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, said the AHRC was "still pursuing the idea that 'directed' research, with the directions couched in highly general and abstract terms, is a sensible way to dispose of a good proportion of its very limited funds".

He added: "Good academic research comes from particular academics with particular projects, not from top-down directives."

Professor West responded by saying that the consultation showed that the approach was not top-down and that the AHRC had a valid role in shaping what researchers were doing when funds were limited.

"We need to provide that leadership role, and that is what this document is suggesting," she said.


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