Tough tasks face arts research body

April 24, 1998

The Arts and Humanities Research Council, long a dream of the researchers who lack a research council of their own, is getting nearer with this week's announcement of the new Arts and Humanities Research Board (front page).

As we point out below in the context of lottery funding, a new source of cash for higher education is always welcome. And in a funding regime in which more cash is finding its way to universities via the research councils while the funding councils' responsibilities for research are on the wane, the new body is welcome. But bear in mind that it may never happen: there are reasons to suppose that a simpler research board structure would work just as well as a full-scale research council.

By being funded via the Department for Education and Employment and the funding councils, the new board will be able to avoid the emphasis on economic relevance that has gripped the other research councils, whose cash comes from the Department of Trade and Industry. But this apparent escape should not cause too much relief. The Economic and Social Research Council has gained a lot from having to argue for the relevance of the work it does, while the astronomers and particle physicists seem to get funded for finding out why matter has mass or whether the universe is going to collapse in 15 billion years. Compared with them, arts and humanities research seems positively applied. At the very least, there will have to be a channel for the new board to ensure that it and the other research councils are not contradicting each other. The civil servants will notice rapidly if they do.

But the new board is not being conjured from a vacuum. It grows out of the Humanities Research Board set up by the British Academy and will take over much of the academy's research funding, and presumably the people who administer it.

If the nation's arts and humanities researchers want to go beyond the new board and lobby for a full-scale research council, they will have to recognise that such status brings with it responsibilities. A research council is a chartered body whose chief executive is the accounting officer for public money, with a government department to satisfy that the job is being done properly. Other and fiercer dragons, such as the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office, are also alert to possible misdeeds.

A full-scale research council is not the property of the research community it funds, and if the arts and humanities get one, this is an issue that will have to be faced. It is an independent entity whose board members represent a wide range of interests, and it has a duty to ensure the continued health of the scholarly areas for which it is responsible. It has to have its own policies and a mission statement showing how it fits into the whole body of public spending. It is not simply there to respond to the demands a user community places on it. It also has to have procedures that are visibly fair and transparent and has to be able to defend its decisions in public. How well will the new board, or a possible arts and humanities research council, react when newspapers find out about the research it is funding on the art of Robert Mapplethorpe? And it will have a duty, probably statutory, to explain the work it carries out to the general public. The research councils have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the public understanding of science movement of the past 15 years. The arts and humanities have a lot to gain from their experience, but planning and talent are needed to build effective public communication.

Long before the possible council is set up, the new board has problems enough of its own. It will have to deal with Welsh and Scottish participation, and with the sheer bureaucracy inherent in a community of thousands of academics, some of whom want only small sums of money. And perhaps it can do something about the long-standing gripe that the BA is interested only in the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London - although perhaps this is a forlorn hope at a time when the other research councils are concentrating rather than dispersing their resources.

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