UK creative community takes it to another level

January 9, 2004

The elevation of the AHRB to the status of research council will benefit everyone, argues Geoffrey Crossick

So much controversy has swirled around the higher education bill that it may come as a surprise to discover that at least a part of it has commanded virtually unanimous support. Those few pages in the first part of the bill translate the Arts and Humanities Research Board into a research council, enabling the arts and humanities community to join its colleagues in the sciences in the mainstream of research funding and strategy.

UK research in the arts and humanities is a success story. We have some of the finest arts and humanities researchers in the world, who are regarded as leaders in many areas of study. The AHRB was established in 1998 to build on this success.

Few of those involved in the fledgling organisation could have anticipated how rapidly it would establish itself as indispensable or the speed with which it would create opportunities for new ways of working - such as team-based research, projects to enhance the research infrastructure and practice-led research in the creative and performing arts. Through its three programmes, for research, postgraduate studies and university museums and galleries, the board has won a reputation as an effective, responsive organisation, which we are determined to keep as we change our status.

Research in our subjects feeds into economic and social wellbeing: it supports the booming creative industries, the wider cultural sectors so important for tourism, and the flow of graduates and postgraduates into jobs that need their flexibility and imagination. Museums, galleries and other cultural institutions have become central to the regeneration of cities and the construction of inclusive communities. The AHRB is engaging with regional development agencies to ensure that arts and humanities researchers play a full role in all these areas.

Such benefits, however, must not distract us from the fundamental importance of the arts and humanities themselves, their ability to enrich our society and our lives, and the ways they bring new ways of understanding the world that we inhabit and the world that we make.

Most high-quality research is shaped by a desire to understand what is not understood, in the belief that such endeavours will enrich humanity.

Without the arts and humanities, we cannot understand the construction and dissemination of knowledge in a knowledge society; questions of ethics and rights; the ways in which religion, cultures and identities interact; how subjectivities, narratives and our sense of self offer tools for understanding after decades in which narrowly conceived objectivity was claimed as sufficient; how creativity and performance shape our experience and our potential; how understanding the past is fundamental to understanding our present. And much, much more.

We have been working with the existing research councils and are now fully embedded in the structures of Research Councils UK. Our colleagues in the research councils and the Office of Science and Technology have welcomed the new perspectives that the arts and humanities bring, recognising that they enlarge the research landscape. As a research council, we shall be a full part of the country's strategic research agenda and be able to collaborate widely. We are working on design with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and on cultures of consumption with the Economic and Social Research Council. We hope to collaborate with others in the arts, humanities and medicine, and on subjects as diverse as consciousness and the environment.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council must nevertheless sustain its own ethos and that of its research domain. Priority will be given to responsive-mode funding. We shall maintain our commitment to individual as well as team-based research. And we shall continue to need the advice and involvement of our research community as we develop new strategic activities. We shall take initiatives in key areas - such as our programme on information and communications technology in arts and humanities research, and a new one on diasporas, migration and identities. We shall work to build interaction between researchers and the creative industries.

And we shall launch an initiative to bring the benefits of research to the development of museums, galleries and the wider heritage sector.

Although this aspect of the higher education bill may have had little press attention, it is of great significance. Only with a research council can the arts and humanities play their full role in national life.

Geoffrey Crossick is chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

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