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How Humanities and Social Sciences can play a leading part in the COVID-19 recovery

  • 20 August 2020
  • By Chloe Jeffries, Aaron McGaughey, Luke Postlethwaite & Jared Ruff

This blog was kindly contributed by the Research Development Team, Faculty of Humanities, The University of Manchester: Chloe Jeffries, Aaron McGaughey, Luke Postlethwaite and Jared Ruff.

COVID-19 upturned research funding. The first act of the crisis saw a necessary focus on health risks. Medical research dominated the media, funding calls and the communications and planning of many universities. In some higher education institutions, medical faculties coordinated COVID-19 related research initiatives for the whole institution. However, as we enter Act Two, attention has shifted towards the societal and economic impact of COVID-19. Humanities and Social Sciences researchers can play a leading role here, to inform and shape the recovery. Indeed, it is across Humanities and Social Sciences that much of the insight needed to address these challenges can be found.

Humanities and Social Sciences research can interpret data, contextualise trends and offer frameworks for understanding. The questions asked – and recommendations proposed – by Humanities and Social Sciences researchers come from a deep knowledge of how cultures, societies and economies function. At odds with lingering stereotypes, Humanities and Social Sciences researchers have applied their research to the problems posed by the pandemic with noticeable speed. Here at The University of Manchester we saw a phenomenal response to the UKRI COVID-19 Rapid Response Call and early successes with humanities projects on cultures of misinformation and oral histories of NHS workers. Both research teams persuaded funders that the work was urgent and could make an intervention within 18 months. Each drew on and reoriented their existing work (conspiracy theory culture and the NHS since 1970), contrary to tales of academics becoming pandemic experts overnight.

Above all, these early responses make clear the research contribution of the humanities and social sciences. The SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) campaign and associated British Academy reports start to address this by demonstrating the value of these subjects as degrees. SHAPE equips students for the world. However, the case for teaching (and study) must be viewed alongside the case of the research, not least because it is often the same individuals who carry out both.

The appetite and ability of Humanities and Social Sciences research to contribute to the challenges of the pandemic should not surprise anyone who has been following the UK research landscape over the past ten years. The government’s new UK R&D Roadmap, launched in early July, is full of aspiration but overlooks the change that researchers have already undergone, particularly in Humanities and Social Sciences . In many respects, the present moment is the culmination of a series of trends incentivising more collaborative, interdisciplinary and outward-facing research. Designing projects for external funding is now central to a research career in these areas. Research Councils, but also the Research Excellence Framework, have driven and embedded impact. It is not just that Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines are inherently suited to the type of research we need to drive economic recovery. The way that Humanities and Social Sciences academics do research has shifted and this puts them in prime position.

Addressing the scale of the challenges created by COVID-19 will require complex, large-scale projects with interdisciplinary solutions at their core. This is not dissimilar to the approach seen in many of the recent challenge-led funds (Global Challenges Research Fund, Industrial Strategy). Yet, their multimillion-pound awards are still most often led from engineering or the health sciences. Where these projects look to embrace interdisciplinarity, they do so by including a Humanities and Social Sciences work package. In the best cases, this is integrated, as has been seen, for example, in Manchester in successful collaborations around plastics between the Faculty of Science and Engineering and researchers from Humanities working on sustainability, or the ‘Future Dams’ project which brings together social and physical science expertise. However, among these successes are other examples where Humanities and Social Sciences involvement seems tacked on.

The pandemic, and ongoing consequences like restrictions on lab access and the straitened budgets of medical charities, gives us the opportunity to rethink team formations. What would a large COVID-19 recovery project look like, led by humanities with a biomedical or engineering work package? Maybe now is the moment for more explicit encouragement of this in funding calls (as the Leverhulme Trust did for its Centres, before COVID-19).

Such a reorientation in thinking requires a fundamental shift in how Humanities and Social Sciences research is viewed by policymakers. The expertise of researchers from these disciplines – from those gathering data, to those sitting on government advisory boards – needs to be supported to act as the drivers for economic recovery. This means ensuring that the burden does not rest on a small group of individuals. For, as a recent Atlantic article following the public health team at Johns Hopkins revealed, immense pressure on a small group may cause these teams to burn out.

This may be easier said than done in a period where increased teaching pressures will impact on the time colleagues have to develop research plans. However, the retooling of Humanities and Social Sciences over the last decade means that it is well placed to mitigate this. The retooling has been underpinned by a range of specialist staff and structures – including the growth in ‘hybrid’ research development roles, which bridge the gap between research groups and support services, playing a vital role in pulling together complex multi-site projects.

As our own recent experiences of large grant awards led by Humanities and Social Sciences at Manchester demonstrate, it takes a village (or the best part of an office) to apply for a major research centre or hub. Therefore, as universities address the financial impact of the pandemic, this supporting infrastructure must not be stripped back. Indeed, if policymakers and funders want UK researchers to produce world-leading contributions to recovery, they should build processes and structures that facilitate the work of hybrid research development roles. This could include more transparent decision-making, early announcements of opportunities, broader dissemination of intelligence, and online information events open to specialist research support staff (not just investigators). Although the new UK roadmap is right to draw attention to a wider R&D landscape stretching beyond universities, it overlooks the strength of universities in pulling together collaborations. Universities as anchor institutions can guide the recovery precisely because of the breadth of expertise they bring.

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