Life in an uncertain world

Beliefs about global insecurity of all kinds are the focus of new cross-council fellowships. Zoe Corbyn reports

July 3, 2008

From terrorism and crime to global poverty and war, how we deal with global threats to our security is one of the most sensitive political and public issues of our time. Academics in the social sciences, arts and humanities are now being invited to apply for a share of £5.5 million of funding for research to help better understand such threats and improve policymaking.

The call for proposals, launched this week for individual fellowship funding for "Global Uncertainties Fellowships", focuses on research into how ideas and beliefs about security are developed and transmitted by everyone ranging from individuals to nation-states. The funding consists of £3 million from the Economic and Social Research Council and £2.5 million from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

"It is a very important strategic topic both for the public and policymakers nationally and internationally," explained Steve Morgan, the associate director for research into international development, international relations and security at the ESRC. "You can't address problems like terrorism in isolation or in a very narrow sense - you have to start contextualising them."

It is the first call to be issued under the ten-year cross-council programme, "Global uncertainties: security for all in a changing world". This programme, led by the ESRC and worth £113 million over the current three-year budget period, will launch officially later this year.

The fellowships call asks researchers to develop projects spanning one or more of six priority research areas. "We had to give it a degree of focus," explained Colin McInnes, a professor of international politics at Aberystwyth University who has been providing academic advice on the project.

The first priority area looks at how people in different cultural, social, political, economic and environmental contexts form their ideas and beliefs about security and how historical and contemporary factors influence them. "Are there differences in men and women? What happens when communities migrate?" asks the brief.

The second looks at how risks and threats are communicated, constructed and received. A third looks at how some ideas and beliefs lead to conflict, violence or criminal activity - and how they should be countered. A fourth asks whether increased access to information can play a role in mitigating violence.

A fifth priority area asks researchers to investigate whether there is an acceptable balance between national security needs and the protection of civil liberties. A final priority addresses how institutions with responsibility for security should evolve.

Both Mr Morgan and Professor McInnes are at pains to stress that the questions are meant to be broad, relating to many "security threats" on the radar and not just terrorism.

Launched together with the call is an outline of the strategic framework for the larger ten-year cross-council programme. This sets out five "broad areas of concern".

Alongside "radicalised violence and terrorism", the areas of concern are "stresses on the global environment" (including threats from climate change, disease transmission and food scarcity); "international and transborder crime" (including threats from drug and people smuggling, money laundering and cyber crime); "conflict" (including threats posed by weapons of mass destruction); and global poverty and its relationship to inequality and injustice.

The ESRC has learnt lessons from past mistakes in the area of security research. A previous programme co-funded with the Foreign Office around countering radicalism had to be withdrawn and relaunched after researchers complained it was too closely aligned with government counterterrorism priorities and could put academics working in Islamic countries in serious danger.

Under the fellowship call, the councils plan to offer 15 to 20 fellowships, each worth up to £600,000. Work is intended to start in February and to run for three years. Applications are open to experienced researchers but those who have not previously worked on security issues are encouraged to apply. While it will be administered by the ESRC, both the ESRC and the AHRC will undertake peer review and decision-making.

It is a "tremendously exciting time", said Professor McInnes, stressing that researchers in the social sciences, humanities and arts - ranging from performance artists to philosophers to criminologists to international relations academics - had much to contribute to understanding and debate in the field.

"There is an academic agenda and a policy agenda. They are not the same but there is a real opportunity for sharing ideas," he said. Applications close on 25 September.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

See www.esrc.ac.uk.

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