Research fears unfounded

January 12, 1996

Olga Wojtas reports from the ever-expanding world of geographers at the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers annual conference in Strathclyde.

Research councils are keen to fund the subjects and multidisciplinary work much-loved by geographers - contrary to fears that the very broad nature of the discipline is harming it. This was the optimistic message from a research discussion meeting at the Royal Geographical Society/ Institute of British Geographers' annual conference at Strathclyde University last week.

Chris Caswill, director of research for the Economic and Social Research Council, said: "It does seem to me that the tide is in your favour. The agendas the research councils are producing offer you opportunities."

Geography is one of the broadest academic disciplines, straddling science, social science and arts faculties. In the past researchers have been afraid of their work being marginalised by increasing competition and funding restrictions.

Since the discipline is so dispersed, ranging from human and physical geography to historical geography and philosophy of geography, it is split between the Economic and Social Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Humanities Research Board. Researchers have complained that it is extremely difficult to win support for innovative work which falls between different funding bodies.

David Sugden, vice president of the RGS/IBG, and convenor of the conference, said there was particular concern over the squeeze on curiosity-driven research, which seemed to disadvantage new researchers disproportionately. Reports from the society's 18 research groups showed that in some areas, less than 20 per cent of alpha-rated applications were supported. "If there is a one in six success rate, this leads to cynicism and disillusion with the system," he said.

But the research groups also stressed that recent trends were focussing on issues which had long been central to geography, such as the interest in global change, both in relation to the natural environment and the links between regions, cultures and places, Professor Sugden said.

The ESRC was determined to protect its multi-disciplinary research grants board, Mr Caswill pledged. It was retaining its responsive research grants scheme, supporting curiosity-driven research, not because of any romantic attachment, but because it was essential to have access to the best quality ideas emerging from the academic community.

This would also help the ESRC shape its research priorities for the future, Mr Caswill said. "The society needs to be in a position to contribute effectively to that debate - not all learned societies are."

David Drewry, director of science and technology at NERC, also predicted considerable potential for geography, since NERC had shifted its attention to areas which cut across traditional scientific boundaries, such as environmental hazards, pollution and natural resources. "We are looking at issues of relating physical sciences to social sciences, in which I believe geography can play a pivotal part," he said.

NERC is hoping to fund a new urban environment programme, with a proposed budget of Pounds 15 million over five years, which would include topics such as air and water quality, land reclamation, and health and safety issues, said Dr Drewry.

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