Stuck on the sidelines

David Gauntlett says the AHRC needs to put its researchers back on the field and stop positioning them as mere spectators of culture

August 6, 2009

I love the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Of course I do - it funds some of my work, giving me time to research, think and publish. Therefore I was pleased to see that it has recently put considerable effort into making the case for its future existence, as seen in its recent report Leading the World: The Economic Impact of UK Arts and Humanities Research, and echoed in the recent speech by David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, in praise of the sector.

Leading the World makes a persuasive case for the importance of arts and culture in our national life. The argument is well made, expressed in terms of human aspiration and happiness for the idealists such as me, as well as containing impressive indicators of economic significance to keep the Government happy. The AHRC lists the numerous ways in which a majority of the UK population engage with and invest in cultural activities, whether going out to museums, movies and plays, or staying in to read books, play music or interact using electronic media. It argues convincingly that this contributes to the "civic capital" of the nation, adding to the stock of knowledge and cultural participation that brings benefits both to the economy and to our quality of life.

This is a winning argument. Unfortunately for the AHRC, though, it's a winning argument for someone else because the AHRC is not directly a funder of arts and culture. The research council says that it funds work that fosters "public understanding" of these things, but that claim remains somewhat aspirational, except in cases where a gallery or museum is directly involved. As AHRC staff privately admit, most funding applications are weak at explaining why we should be analysing any particular bit of culture, and typically think that dissemination means writing impenetrable journal articles. The stronger ones propose to put the impenetrable articles on an unfindable website.

I am not suggesting that AHRC researchers are not creative. Sadly, that view comes from the AHRC itself, as it positions its academic community as disappointingly passive: not creators of culture but mere observers. Our knowledge and culture, which has branches in arts and humanities research, and in science and technology, is driven primarily by ideas - the generation of new ideas and debate around those that already exist. We would expect that all research councils would put ideas at the heart of everything they do.

In this new report, however, the AHRC sets out a model that knocks its researchers off the field and on to the spectator benches. This is made clear in a handy diagram in the report that shows "culture" in a hearty circle at the top and academic researchers in a separate blob below that and off to one side, doing "professional reflection on culture". In the diagram, we are next to "popular reflection on culture". In other words, the role of academics is to generate the difficult-to-read version of a Sunday newspaper culture section.

Imagine the outcry if one of the science research councils published a model where UK scientists were positioned as observers, rather than creators, of scientific innovation. In this part of its report, the AHRC has taken a wrong turn. In rightly making a case that avoids turning our research into an arm of business, it has gone for an unnecessarily limp alternative, based on the economic importance of already-existing culture.

Happily, if confusingly, this is corrected in a later section, which seems to use the word "innovation" in every sentence and which highlights the dazzling minority of projects that demonstrate the true creative strength of the sector. Here, the work of arts and humanities researchers is seen to have a clear impact on medical visualisations, human rights law, and our understanding of environmental issues and religious extremism. The more sociologically oriented members of the AHRC's constituency, such as me, will be pleased to note that the research council turns to real-world issues when it wants to demonstrate value for money.

Leading the World observes that "only 2.8 per cent of total research council expenditure on research and postgraduate funding is allocated to the arts and humanities, despite these disciplines representing per cent of all UK research-active academics". There is clearly a balance to be redressed. To get more of this pie, the AHRC should be bolder and push for greater innovation - not for business purposes but for the public good. It should work on ways in which arts and humanities research can connect with real social issues, and be communicated in clear, intelligent ways to the public.

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