Humanities must lead on European stage or risk being left behind

Oxford scholar says discipline can play vital role in meeting biggest challenges

December 12, 2013

A “stimulus paper” from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education has called on UK humanities scholars to grasp the guidance nettle if they are to play a full role in the research agendas being developed across Europe.

Launched at the British Academy last week, Humanities Research Leadership in Europe was produced by Shearer West, head of the humanities division at the University of Oxford.

Professor West’s analysis focuses on the 21 universities that make up the League of European Research Universities, an invitation-only umbrella group.

She notes that although “humanities academics have a more or less equal presence in…middle management with their counterparts in the other disciplines”, they are underrepresented at the top.

Much of this, she argues, is down to “self-selection” and a research culture that engenders “a natural mistrust of leadership”, which is often seen to be “at odds with the fundamentally individualist, laissez-faire and analytical approaches of the disciplines themselves”.

Many medics and laboratory scientists, on the other hand, gain early experience of management and learn to “temper their individual research desires with the realities of acquiring funding for equipment and research assistants”.

Professor West also subjects to critical analysis the claim that a “science model” of collaborative research and “impact”, often based on open access and “big kit” infrastructure, implicitly sidelines the humanities.

Even in the area of major “global challenges” such as climate change and food security, she suggests, we need far more “leaders within humanities who can work collaboratively with scientific teams and overcome barriers of technical language and culture in order to play a decisive, rather than ancillary, role” in addressing the problems.

Despite the “danger of being left behind”, Professor West sees “encouraging signs [of] a more joined-up approach” to the potential for the humanities to contribute to Europe’s global challenges and innovation agendas.

“We have taken a number of strides to adapt to the changes in the research landscape while retaining the integrity and quality of our disciplines,” she writes.

Nonetheless, Professor West concludes, “there is room for us to do even more”.

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