Time to share the fruits of our world-class labour

October 7, 2005

The benefits of arts and humanities research must flow freely into the wider community, says Philip Esler

Arts and humanities research-ers in the UK are among the best in the world.

Thousands of men and women in our disciplines are having thoughts that no one has ever had before. We are probing human activity, identity, experience and creativity, now and in the past, expressed in literature and language, visual and sculptural arts, performance and politics.

That is why I am so excited to be taking up the reins at the Arts and Humanities Research Council at this moment in its history. Most of our research community work as individuals, producing monographs or articles and essays, and the AHRC will continue to support strongly such research. Yet the days when this type of research was all we had to think about are past. Today we face other challenges: to work in groups rather than as individuals; to seek support for our research from bodies outside our institutions; to disseminate and to apply our research in engagement with the wider community, including the business community.

Some of our colleagues are troubled by all these developments. They tend to see any form of activity other than that of the sole scholar pursuing "pure research" as selling out. Universities, they feel, are becoming places where ideas are sold to the highest bidder. But it is clear that our research exists in wider social and commercial contexts. We are paid to do research by our university employers. We receive annual royalty cheques for books and fees for writing in newspapers and magazines or (sometimes) appearing in TV or radio productions. In the past ten years or so, new financial sources have entered the scene - charities, even companies, seek our expert assistance.

Universities are keen for staff to tap these funding sources. I cannot see the problem with this. The AHRC Research Leave scheme, for example, attracts external funding that allows academics more time to write monographs, and enables young researchers to get on the career ladder by teaching for a year or more in the absence of their senior colleagues. At the AHRC, we are enthusiastic about these opportunities. We are also required by our charter to do more than just produce pure or basic research.

The first object in our charter is "to promote and support by any means high-quality, basic, strategic and applied research and related postgraduate training in the arts and humanities". The second object relates to our contribution to the economic competitiveness of the UK and to enhancing its quality of life and creative output. In so doing, the AHRC is empowered to generate public awareness, communicate research outcomes, encourage public engagement, disseminate knowledge and provide advice. This necessity for the AHRC to be engaged in knowledge-transfer and community engagement is perhaps the single greatest change that has come from our transition to research council status. It is not something that will go away, and it is not enough to say we are doing it; we must be able to provide proof that we are. We already have a range of knowledge-transfer activities at the AHRC and we are about to receive special funding from the Office of Science and Technology for this purpose.

One possibility we are exploring is provision for academics keen to engage in particular knowledge-transfer activities. If a colleague has high-quality video materials she uses in her drama classes, how can we help her to develop these for distribution to a wider audience?

Then there is the question of undergraduate or secondary school teaching materials. Would top-flight researchers be interested in preparing teaching resources so that we can have more homegrown material, rather than relying on texts from across the Atlantic? Until the AHRC can roll out programmes that tap demand for this community activity, we can only guess what is possible. Since it is likely that only a minority of our colleagues will want to engage in such dedicated knowledge-transfer activity, we are not suggesting a vast switch of resources in their favour. But we must consider making support available.

We are living in a changing environment and we have to adapt. The AHRC has no choice but to encourage both the production of pure or basic research and also the dissemination and application of that research. We must foster the process by which the research results of our brilliant colleagues flow into the wider community, enhancing not only the quality of life and the creative output of the nation, but also its economic wealth and competitiveness.

Philip Esler is chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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