Four countries have now pledged money for the AHRB, but it is not quite enough to become the organisation that Dearing had envisaged, says Olga Wojtas
Academics in the arts and humanities are a step closer to winning their own research council, less than five months after the launch of the Arts and Humanities Research Board.
Until now, only the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland have supported the British Academy in setting up the new board. But now the Scottish and Welsh higher education funding councils have also decided to join, boosting the AHRB's 1999-2000 budget to about Pounds 49 million.
At first sight, this seems to meet Lord Dearing's recommendation of about Pounds 50 million a year for an arts and humanities research council. In fact, it is still a good way off Dearing's target because the budget includes a transfer of Pounds 9 million special funding for museums and galleries.
"We haven't yet got the new money that Dearing recommended, and won't until we get the push of a research council," said Jennifer Birkett, steering committee convener of the Standing Conference of Arts and Social Sciences.
However, the Scottish and Welsh participation has boosted researchers' morale and a fully fledged research council is the next step, Professor Birkett said.
AHRB chief executive Paul Langford also warmly welcomed the participation of all four countries. "Like the other research councils, the AHRB will now be able to fund high-quality research throughout the UK. The detailed arrangements have yet to be made, but we already have authority to open all our research schemes to colleagues in Scotland and Wales so as to provide funds with effect from the next academic year," he said.
"I am sure that researchers in arts and humanities in these countries will be keen to compete on equal terms in the research culture of the UK as a whole, and thereby to strengthen the international standing of their work."
The AHRB has just announced its first grant winners from England and Northern Ireland, with awards totalling Pounds 4.6 million. These include almost Pounds 40,000 for Jo Labanyi at Birkbeck College, London, who will compile an oral history of cinema-going in 1940s and 1950s Spain, and a similar amount for Alan Cummings, of the Royal College of Art, who aims to help museums and galleries to improve conservation techniques by investigating the history and current use of modern materials in art and design.
Three-quarters of the 317 successful applications were in the humanities, the rest in the arts. More than 80 researchers won more than Pounds 5,000, and 135 awards were made jointly with universities and colleges to fund academics for two semesters' research leave.
"Although in our first year our scope has been restricted to England and Northern Ireland, we have been at pains to consult the academic community and other stakeholders in arts and humanities research as widely as possible so that from the beginning we have had the benefit of much advice and guidance from Scotland and Wales," Professor Langford said.
The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is likely to contribute about Pounds 2 million in the first year and it has underlined its support for the board by committing annual funding until 2003-2004.
John Andrews, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, has announced that it is setting aside Pounds 970,000 in 1999-2000. This sum will be ring-fenced for Welsh institutions, but researchers will have to meet the same standards in competing for grants as those in England and Scotland. If funds are left over, they could be transferred to projects elsewhere in the country.
"We recognise the importance to research in the arts and humanities in Wales that our institutions should have the opportunity to compete with the rest of the UK for AHRB grants," Professor Andrews said.
"Success in obtaining grants will not only extend the range and amount of research undertaken in Wales, but will in itself enhance the standing of institutions. We hope it will also have a knock-on effect in terms of further improvements in ratings in the next research assessment exercise in 2001."
SHEFC has no plans to ringfence its contribution, which Robin Cameron, convener of Scot SCASS, admits may dismay some researchers north of the border who fear that potential funding will be siphoned off by the Golden Triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London. "But I am sure that our feeling overall is that we want to preserve a national system," he said.
There had been widespread alarm that Scotland could be marginalised were it not part of the AHRB, particularly given the prospect of the board's evolving into a research council. "We were obviously very nervous of being left outside that," said Mark Ward, dean of arts at Glasgow University and a former chair of the Scottish arts deans.