Research Intelligence - Practice makes profit

UK humanities scholars have reaped rewards in Europe thanks to their grant-writing experience, reports Paul Jump

September 23, 2010

Humanities researchers in the UK may lament the grant-application treadmill they face from national funding bodies. But if their success in winning grants from a new pan-European funding stream is anything to go by, all that practice at home may be leading to rich pickings in Brussels.

Of the 55 projects invited to submit full proposals to the recent inaugural funding call by the Humanities in the European Research Area (Hera), 52 involved British-based participants.

And of the 19 teams awarded grants of as much as €1 million (£830,000) earlier this year, UK researchers led 11 and were involved in 18.

Hera is a network of national humanities research funders from across Europe that was set up by a European Union-funded project in 2005. At that time, according to Caroline Baylon, head of international strategy at the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council, European funding for humanities was "pretty much non-existent".

That situation changed somewhat in 2007, when the EU's Seventh Framework Programme opened up new funding streams for the social sciences and humanities.

According to Jean-Michel Baer, director of the social sciences and humanities directorate within the European Commission's directorate-general for research, its 2011 budget for the disciplines will be €86 million, compared with about €40 million a year from 2002-06.

He also noted that the European Research Council, created in 2007, devotes about 15 per cent of its spending on individual grants to the fields - about €150 million in 2011. "This is the most important international cooperation programme in social sciences and humanities in the world," he said.

But according to Evelyn Welch, academic dean for arts at Queen Mary, University of London, who has won a Hera grant to study fashion in the early modern period with colleagues in Demark and Sweden, European funding calls have often left humanities researchers "scratching their heads saying: 'Is this for me?'".

According to Ms Baylon, Hera concluded that there was a need for a more flexible, less policy-driven funding stream for collaborative work in two broad areas of common interest in the humanities: creativity and cultural dynamics.

"We wanted to demonstrate that there was a need for humanities researchers to work collaboratively together across Europe," she said.

Most of the €16.5 million funding for the Hera call was provided by national funders, with the AHRC providing the lion's share.

"That was mainly because some other large funders couldn't participate in the first call because they weren't ready," Ms Baylon said.

Conspicuous among the absentees were funders from France and Germany. Other large countries such as Spain and Italy are not currently involved because they have no equivalent of a humanities research council.

But Ms Baylon said the UK had been given no guarantee that its large investment - amounting to roughly a third of the total - would be rewarded with the majority of grants. "The funding was distributed according to excellence. It was a bit of a bet for us, but we had a good return on it," she said.

Primed for success

She thinks the UK's success was attributable to the efforts of the AHRC to publicise the call and the practice UK researchers have had in applying for grants from the AHRC.

Professor Welch agreed, as did Jeremy Till, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Westminster, who won a grant to explore with colleagues in Norway and Austria how scarcity affects creativity in architecture.

"The AHRC has trained us really well in terms of framing research questions," he said. "I have been on the other side of assessments, and it is amazing how bad humanities people are at filling in the forms."

Professor Till also welcomed the fact that the 233 initial applicants only had to fill in a four-page form, and that only those shortlisted were required to submit further material.

However, despite the high number of applications, the difficult economic climate faced by many national funders means it is unclear whether there will be another funding call.

Mr Baer said the Commission was "doing its best" to meet social science and humanities researchers' "growing expectations", but Ms Baylon said now was not an easy time to ask the Commission to increase its original €4 million contribution.

Despite the constraints, she added, the will was there, even among those funders whose researchers were largely unsuccessful this time.

"At first they might have been a little frustrated," she said. "But they understand that it is a competition and that if people want funding they have to get to know how to put applications together or get into partnerships that help enhance their research."

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