Vinita Damodaran and Richard Grove detect a worrying move towards Eurocentrism
When visitors walk into the London headquarters of the British Academy the first thing they see is a fine bust of Mortimer Wheeler FBA, the erstwhile doyen and senior scholar of Indian archaeology and culture in the days of the empire. He rebuilt the reputation of the British Academy largely by channelling government research funds through the academy to a new series of satellite societies and institutes based around the world.
British institutes and schools were set up in Ankara, Athens, Nairobi, Baghdad, Tehran and Rome. Specialist societies were set up too, such as the Society for South Asian Studies and the Committee for South-East Asian Studies - all autonomous bodies that, until this year, have made their own funding decisions and established British intellectual authority in archaeology, literature, history, linguistics and other disciplines.
Now the wheel has turned full circle. An emergency meeting takes place today at the Egypt Exploration Society to plan a campaign against the announcement by Lord Runciman, the current president of the British Academy, to remove the funding from most of the world-famous institutes and societies and centralise funding allocation and decisions in the academy's research committee.
No longer will specialist non-European research be ring-fenced. There are fears that most of the very limited government funds channelled through the British Academy will inevitably flow to European projects in a pattern now very familiar in European universities.
In the Netherlands, for example, there is now only one lecturer in Indian history left, in a country once unequalled for its Asian scholarship. In Britain we are drifting in the same direction, the closures of the School of African and Asian Studies at Sussex University and East Asian Studies at Durham being tragic recent cases. The irony is that all this comes at a time when the dangerous global political position and the massive economic engagement between Britain and Asia demand that Britain nurtures knowledge and skills at least as much in the south and in Commonwealth countries as in Europe.
And yet the British Academy, which has virtually no academic relations with any African or south Asian country, is now proposing to turn inwards to Europe and spend, for example, £1 million a year (out of a total government stipend of £13 million) on maintaining the British Institute in Rome. Moreover, research-funding decisions that had been made to date by societies expert in their regions will now be made by a British Academy research committee that is almost wholly European in its research interests and outlook and is to be investigated in January by the National Audit Office and the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee over complaints of bias and lack of accountability.
The consortium of affected British Academy societies, led by the Society of South Asian Studies, is now making a last-ditch attempt to persuade government ministers to channel research funds through the expert hands of the Royal Asiatic Society or similar bodies and remove research funding decisions vital to our national outlook away from the British Academy, at least until it is reformed. If it fails, the future for non-European Studies in the humanities and social sciences will be bleak.
Vinita Damodaran is on the council of the Society for South Asian Studies.
Richard Grove is a researcher at the University of Sussex.