We inhabit a changed world, and it is our duty to engage with it

Impact is central to the AHRC's mission, as the public demands. But that is not inimical to true research values, says Philip Esler

April 30, 2009

Peter Barry's analysis of the Arts and Humanities Research Council ("These directions map out a one-way road into service, not open inquiry", 16 April) is misguided and misleading.

He believes in a world where individual arts and humanities researchers provide specialist knowledge on the traditional foci of their disciplines to other researchers and cannot be helped by talking to non-academics; where research collaborations are just temporary liaisons of convenience; where any effort by researchers to contribute to solving the big problems of our age is scorned as "consultancy"; where impact is necessarily short term; where the interests of the taxpayers who support his salary are of no account; and where the AHRC (cue sounds of shield-thumping) fails "to speak truth to power".

Yet this is not the AHRC's world, nor the real one. The AHRC is required by its Royal Charter to support not just pure and applied research and postgraduate training but also to contribute to the economic competitiveness of the UK and to its public services and policy, quality of life and creative output.

Helping our researchers to generate impact and to contribute to solving big problems that require interdisciplinary teams is not just an option for us; it is a condition pursuant to which we receive public money and are able to support arts and humanities research at all.

That was the task the AHRC was charged with pursuing, and it was both a necessary and a desirable task: necessary because, for the first time, it fully acknowledged the central role the arts and humanities played in the economic and cultural life of the nation; and desirable because the extra funding that followed this acknowledgement has led to greatly increased support for arts and humanities research.

It is essential that the funding the AHRC receives should be spent in distinct ways, particularly since AHRC funding is only about one fifth of quality-related (QR) funding for arts and humanities research. We have to make our funding count and in ways that correspond both to our Royal Charter and to the excellence of the research being funded.

In the same issue as Barry's piece, Times Higher Education reports on comments made by Steve Smith, the president-elect of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, that the arts and humanities have not yet made the case for continued public support and his concerns that the sometimes wilful failure of those disciplines to co-operate with the Government's demands for researchers to demonstrate the social and economic impact of their work may be responsible for this failure. He asks: "If you were sitting in the Treasury, you would ask: do we need 159 institutions doing humanities and social science research?"

The AHRC shares a research council-wide, very broad description of impact. The notion of impact means nothing more than that the recipients of public funding should be asked to indicate the broader benefits their work may bring.

If Barry thinks this unreasonable, then his detachment from the "wider communities" he apparently disregards is more complete than even he may wish. If he also thinks that his alternative research idyll will find refuge in the research excellence framework, then he will be glad of the early warning that it is likely to include impact. The world is changing, and it is not only the Treasury that asks the awkward questions. The public, as Smith suggests, has a habit of asking them, too.

Excellent research without immediate impact will continue to be funded by the AHRC and will not be disadvantaged; neither will non-collaborative research, as Barry acknowledges. If the AHRC emphasises what makes it distinctive, that is its mission. In doing so, it too lays claim to the "true research values" that Barry claims solely for his idyll, values that are reflected in the work of thousands of arts and humanities researchers around the country whose research supports, in greater or lesser ways, the work of museums, libraries, archives, local arts centres, book clubs, the health service, prisons, teachers, industry, local and national government and any number of other organisations, and through them, the wider life of the country.

Such values are also reflected in the constructive criticisms of the many researchers currently responding to our Future Directions consultation, who, even though they may not always agree with everything we do, are engaging constructively with us and helping us to grasp the opportunities a changing research landscape presents us all with.

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