Research Intelligence - Pragmatic arts

The AHRC's new head is keen to highlight the relevance of research to politicians and public alike. Zoe Corbyn writes

December 31, 2009

"Hand on heart", Rick Rylance cannot think of a single piece of work he has done for which he would have been unable, if asked beforehand, to suggest its potential impact.

In his first interview since becoming chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council in September, Professor Rylance said that when research council grant applications ask for an indication of the likely impact of work, "we are talking about possibilities - and you can always think about possibilities".

Yet the former secondary school teacher, who is a professor of English and former head of the School of Arts, Languages and Literatures at the University of Exeter, is more conciliatory than some of his peers towards opponents of so-called impact statements: critics argue that these demand the impossible by asking researchers to predict the outcome of their work in advance.

Professor Rylance said he could "see their point of view", adding that the polarisation of the debate was "regrettable".

"You are either for or against (the impact agenda) ... and it seems to me we have got to take a little bit of heat out of the situation," he said.

Most people he had spoken to were "neither hardcore zealots in support of the agenda nor purists who believe they should be left to get on with their own knowledge production". Instead, the majority "can see the point of specifying the possibilities of impact in relation to most projects".

Professor Rylance's specialism is 19th- and 20th-century literature and intellectual history, which he intends to continue to pursue in his spare time.

One immediate matter requiring his attention is the AHRC's imminent move to Swindon, where it will join the other research councils. The move is planned for June 2010 and he said he was looking forward to it, believing it will encourage interdisciplinary work.

But a bigger challenge for Professor Rylance is to make the case - to both politicians and the public - that arts and humanities research deserves support as it faces "testing times" during the period ahead.

Despite the latest gloomy news in the pre-Budget report of cuts of £600 million to the education and science budgets, he insisted there was still everything to play for.

"I am not planning for a shrinking budget," he said. "I would be living in cloud-cuckoo-land if I thought that it was not a possibility, but ... we have a fantastically strong case to put to the Government about research as an investment, not a cost."

The AHRC is working on a companion study to complement its recent report Leading the World: The Economic Impact of UK Arts and Humanities Research. It will focus on further case studies demonstrating the fields' economic and social impact.

The council is also conducting a survey to examine the contribution that arts and humanities researchers make to developing public policy.

"There is an awful lot of arts and humanities research, often funded by the AHRC, which has very direct and explicit policy input," he said.

Examples range from lawyers working on the international prevention of torture to academics who study Islam influencing discussions about terrorism.

Also waiting in the wings is the AHRC's Future Directions strategy, which will tout a new approach to funding, dividing the council's research into four broad areas.

Bibliometric sceptic

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he chaired the English sub-panel of the research assessment exercise 2008 and sat on its main panel, Professor Rylance said he was against the use of metrics such as citations or journal rankings to assess the arts and humanities.

This will be welcome news to academics concerned about the European Reference Index for the Humanities (ERIH), which categorises journals into three classes depending on their "global significance". The AHRC has been criticised for even peripheral involvement in the scheme.

"We are keeping a watching brief on how bibliometric discussions develop, but we're not championing, still less advocating, their use and are not funding any developments in this area. I'm sceptical about the merits of the ERIH," he said.

Professor Rylance is due to serve a four-year term at the AHRC, and academics should expect a pragmatist rather than a visionary.

"I don't do visions. I am a pragmatist and pragmatists deal with the situation they have at the moment, which is that we have got fantastic strength in the arts and humanities, something that is not widely realised or appreciated," he said. "If I can leave (this post) with the area better appreciated, understood and valued, then that is good enough for me."

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