'It's absolutely critical that we protect arts research'

New AHRC deputy is keen to avoid past errors and to engage scholars in planning ahead, says Zoe Corbyn

April 24, 2008

There are few people who would wish to start in a new job the way that Shearer West, the new director of research at the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is about to: by confronting more than 200 angry academics.

"I thought I would throw myself into the lion's den straight away," Professor West said of her decision to address a meeting of subject association heads on 1 May - her first day in the new job. "They need to talk to me, and I need to talk to them," she said in her first interview since taking up her new post.

Her appointment at the AHRC for a three-year term - on secondment from the University of Birmingham, where she is a professor of art history and head of the School of Historical Studies - comes not a moment too soon for the council. The post, second in command at the AHRC, has been vacant since September during what has been a rough time.

A poor settlement in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review - down 1 per cent in real terms - and the council's unilateral decision to plug the hole with swingeing cuts to grants, postgraduate awards and its researcher leave scheme, has upset many researchers.

The council has also faced ire over its involvement with the proposed European Research Index for Humanities (ERIH), a ranked list of humanities journals intended to help identify excellence. Purists have also complained that the council is taking the Government's economic impact agenda too far.

It seems that there are quite a lot of urgent matters for the AHRC's newest recruit to attend to.

Professor West is not in the least bit perturbed. Her first intention is to draw a line under the unhappy experience of the CSR and look to the future - barring, of course, reflection on any lessons learnt.

"I don't think the AHRC is in a position to revisit the CSR result. I don't know what I would have done (faced with having to make the cuts) ... but I don't think there is any room for negotiation and that is part of what we have to be clear about on 1 May."

Her plan is to focus positively on what comes next - the preparations for the next CSR, which determines funding for the three years from 2011 - and she wants the academic community to come with her.

"In a sense, awful though it was, the CSR was a bit of a wake-up call," she said. "We have to be a lot cleverer this time because it is absolutely crucial that we protect the type of research we do.

"It is not that (the academic community) shouldn't be expressing their strongly held views. A lot of the things they are worried about are genuine worries that I can completely understand and sympathise with ... It is more that, rather than just going for the attack, let's think about how we can look forward so as not to go through the same thing."

To "look forward", there must be better communications between the AHRC and academics. Professor West is planning "specialist seminars" with academics over the next few months "to begin to think about shaping ourselves for the next CSR". "The problem is that there has been a big trust breakdown, and we have to build the trust back up."

The professor sees her main role as channelling the voice of the academic community into the council, as opposed to that of the chief executive, whose position is aligned more closely to the Government. If she cannot get out and visit universities and grant holders, "the job really isn't worth doing".

The three-year-old AHRC is still finding its feet. Professor West believes that its youth is the cause of many of its difficulties. Academics do not "completely understand" that the council is different from other funding bodies, she said. Unlike most others, it funds both blue-skies research and managed research.

She stressed that the pressure from the Government to ensure that research delivers economic impact would not go away. The poor CSR settlement was partly because of a "lack of knowledge" on the part of the AHRC about the dark arts of the spending review allocation process.

Preparing for the next spending review, she said, should involve the council developing a stronger sense of its own identity hand in hand with academics. "(We need to) consider what being a council means to us and how we can work within the limitations and parameters."

She sees a false dichotomy, too, between blue-skies and managed research. Arts and humanities academics, she said, do not like the concept of research themes because they feel limited by them. "I don't think they need to feel constrained ... particularly if they can help invent them."

On the ERIH, which she described as the "single biggest bone of contention", her response was one of caution. All the AHRC has done is to sit on an ERIH reference group, which would have happened without it anyway, she pointed out. She said that she could not see what the council would have to gain by adopting the rankings. The greater danger is that they could be used in the research excellence framework.

Professor West ended with a reflection on the gulf between her role as researcher and manager.

"When you take on academic management roles, you become the enemy very quickly. People think you have drunk the water, that you have been connected up to some sort of brain machine. They don't realise that you are the same person you always were."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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