Threatened scheme praised by RAE panels for raising quality of projects

Peer reviewers offer public support to the AHRC's research-sabbatical initiative. John Gill writes

January 8, 2009

An endangered scheme that gives academics time off teaching to pursue research in the arts and humanities has won the unequivocal backing of the research assessment exercise's peer-review panels.

But the future of the research-leave initiative operated by the Arts and Humanities Research Council remains uncertain. The AHRC, having completed a six-month review, will later this month announce a new fellowship scheme, but its size and scale are not yet clear.

Although the AHRC is remaining tight-lipped about what is in store for the current scheme, which one academic described as "universally loved", the head of the council's review has previously indicated that it may not continue in its current form.

However, the scheme was highly praised by the panels charged with judging the quality of research in the arts and humanities in the 2008 RAE, which attributed it with having helped to improve the output of the fields since the 2001 RAE.

The languages panel, which said the quality of research output was "very high", said: "The submissions testify to the great success of the research-leave scheme in granting academic staff the time needed to complete important individual projects. We therefore hope that ways will be found to maintain this extremely valuable and cost-effective mode of research support."

The panel reviewing history, Classics and philosophy, among other areas, was similarly effusive about improved research quality, hailing a "step change" in research income and the scale and scope of projects.

It said: "The achievement of full research council status by the AHRC has had a major impact ... all the subpanels noted the importance of its research-leave scheme".

The AHRC grew out of the Arts and Humanities Research Board to become a fully fledged research council in 2005.

The rethink of research leave was triggered by concerns about costs and fears that the initiative, which distributes £6 million a year to about 200 academics, did not give enough support to early-career researchers.

Although it repeatedly expressed its commitment to maintain support for individual researchers, the AHRC also pointed out that a quarter of all academics who took advantage of research leave did not complete their project on time.

Assessors were generally positive about the arts and humanities, but some expressed concern about the future of research in the fields. One RAE panel warned that early-career researchers needed still more protection from pressures to publish prematurely, while another said that, although the number of postdoctoral students was rising, "a disturbingly large proportion of these are self-funded", suggesting that more studentships were needed.

An AHRC spokesman said: "The (panel) reports highlight the success of our funding, which has allowed academic staff the time needed to complete research projects. Further to our recently completed six-month consultation into the future of funding for individual researchers, we will announce at the end of January our new fellowship scheme to continue this vital support."

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