These directions map out a one-way road into service, not open inquiry

The AHRC is so aligned with the government agenda of impact and knowledge transfer that it betrays its very raison d'etre, Peter Barry argues

April 16, 2009

I tell my students to talk back when they read the arguments of theorists - there's no point in a one-way dialogue. Now I'm taking my own advice and applying it to the Arts and Humanities Research Council's consultation document Future Directions for Arts and Humanities Research. From the off, the preface tries to steer the dialogue to the preferred one-way wavelength, telling us that the AHRC has "sought to move away from unhelpful debates about 'responsive versus directed' or 'individual versus collaborative' research funding". But these are precisely the issues academic researchers most want to debate, even if the AHRC finds such debate unhelpful.

The document uses the jargon of government communications, with "strategies", "priorities" and "communities" on almost every page. There is little sense that the AHRC has a voice of its own that would ever dare to speak truth to power. Responses are invited to 19 specific questions, but all seem to assume acceptance of the AHRC agenda of penning research into centrally controlled thematic areas investigated by collaborative groups of researchers willing to abandon the traditional foci of their disciplines and happy to work within short-term notions of "impact" and "knowledge transfer".

Thus the AHRC commits itself to providing "support for large-scale, collaborative research in the arts and humanities", without explaining why big is always beautiful and collaboration always best. A collaboration, after all, is a temporary liaison entered into for reasons of expediency - two political parties, for instance, might enter a collaborative relationship in a situation where neither can secure an overall mandate. This is very different from the longer-term fusions and crossovers of disciplines that occur all the time in the humanities without prodding or grant bribery. All the major movements in the humanities over the past 30 years have been of this kind - just think of post-colonialism, New Historicism, postmodernism and deconstruction. Such disciplinary fusions have had immense influence, permanently changing the intellectual climate. AHRC-style "impact" and "collaboration" are superficial by comparison.

The belittling term "curiosity-driven areas" seems to be used to designate single-researcher, non-collaborative work, even though (surprisingly) the document also declares that "the majority of our research funding" is retained for it. Why mention this only in passing, never giving it the enormous rhetorical prominence it accords to its holy trinity of impact, knowledge transfer and collaboration? (In AHRC documentation, "Knowledge Transfer" is always given reverential initial capitals, whereas "arts and humanities" are in humble lower case.)

The AHRC promises to "develop an increasingly sophisticated means of articulating and measuring the impacts of the research it funds". It should have done so before imposing impact as one of the criteria by which it will judge grant applications. And what grounds can there be for believing that the AHRC can make good this promise, with its "Impact Task Force", its planned knowledge-transfer "brokerage role" and its apparently unlimited willingness to do the Treasury's bidding?

By accepting the notion of impact, the AHRC has accepted the short-termism that is death to any true research values. It ought to have defined and defended a notion of research value, rather than selling out uncritically to the idea of research impact. Further, by asking grant applicants to identify "potential non-academic beneficiaries from the outset of the project" (my italics), it illogically pressures academics into thinking about the dissemination and impact of findings at the start of their investigations before they have found anything to disseminate. For research is not about dissemination - it's about specialist knowledge that is provided primarily for other specialists to build on. By refusing to acknowledge this, and constantly emphasising "wider audiences", "local communities" and "non-academic beneficiaries", the AHRC betrays researchers in the arts and humanities. "Specialist Knowledge" (with capitals if we must), not Knowledge Transfer, ought to be what a research council is about.

The AHRC should stop trying to be helpful and instead tell the Government that research in the arts and humanities is a long-term investment, not a quick cultural fix. It should defend academic freedom, reassert the principle of arm's-length funding by Government and oppose attempts to set up centralised priority areas and themes. It should recognise that its collaboration with the impact and knowledge-transfer agenda substitutes short-term consultancy goals for long-term research aims.

And if consultancy really is what it is about, and the AHRC is happy to go on supplying the Government with material on "Ageing", "Heritage" or "the Digital Economy", then it should stop calling itself a research council.

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