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What is the Role of the Arts and Humanities in the UK Research Policy Landscape?

  • 24 May 2022
  • By Christopher Daley and Matthew Smith

This blog was written by Dr Christopher Daley, Research Development Manager, and Dr Matthew Smith, Senior Lecturer in Public Humanities, at Royal Holloway, University of London. The authors are on Twitter @cr_daley and @MattSmithRHUL.

Plans by the UK Government to invest 2.4 per cent of GDP into research and development (R&D) by 2027 is, on the surface, of benefit to all academic disciplines. There is a general expectation that UKRI’s anticipated 14 per cent budget increase by 2024-25 will translate into some form of economic growth for all Research Councils. However, this cautious optimism around overall financial investment in R&D is set against a more anxious environment for arts and humanities researchers who have seen their disciplines dragged into culture war narratives, derided in debates about ‘low value’ degrees, and seemingly ignored in R&D rhetoric, with its emphasis on the UK becoming a ‘science superpower’.   

Close reading of recent policy documents does little to dispel the perception that the arts and humanities are marginalised in Government thinking. The 2021 Innovation Strategy mentions ‘arts’ on two occasions whilst ‘humanities’ features only once, although the creative industries are referred to multiple times throughout the document. Potentially of more concern for arts and humanities researchers is UKRI’s Strategy 2022-27 which only mentions ‘humanities’ twice, with one of those instances being found in a brief description of the AHRC’s remit. ‘Science superpower’, by contrast, features eight times. This is all in marked contrast to the more all-encompassing definition of ‘science’, embracing all forms of knowledge creation, seen in, for example, EU research policy. Added to this, the emergence of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) and the Prime Minister’s new National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) makes it possible to conclude that the Government is increasingly viewing R&D through a narrow technological lens.  

This sits in a wider context where arts and humanities subjects have been singled out for potential funding cuts. The Office for Students’ 2021-22 consultation on recurrent funding suggested that music, dance, drama and performing arts, as well as art and design, media studies and archaeology, were not ‘strategic priorities’ and therefore possible targets for 50% cuts in funding. Whilst this example relates to teaching, it has nonetheless created wider unease that such a sentiment will also translate to research funding for the arts and humanities. Furthermore, arts and humanities research has been dragged into broader culture wars, most notably through the continual media attacks on the University of Leicester and the National Trust’s Colonial Countryside project. A combination of policy and rhetoric has created an atmosphere of scepticism amongst the arts and humanities research community as to the likelihood of receiving any of the planned R&D benefits, and instead led to fears of funding cuts.

Despite some evidence that the arts and humanities are being overlooked in R&D policy, considered pragmatically, there are still significant opportunities for researchers in these disciplines. The overall increase in R&D investment should, in fact, protect Research Councils and national academies from significant budget squeezes, whilst there is no suggestion that Councils will cease their ‘discovery’ research programmes, which encourage bottom-up researcher driven projects across all disciplines (e.g. the AHRC continues to support its standard research grants scheme). Similarly, the move towards challenge-led research is well-established and arts and humanities researchers have had plenty of time to start engaging with this agenda and generate multidisciplinary partnerships and links with institutions outside higher education. Emerging place-based funding schemes that align closely with the Government’s levelling up agenda could also provide significant opportunities for researchers who wish to co-create projects with community groups or interact with diverse publics. Yet, there is understandable concern that the overall shift towards applied outcomes, interdisciplinarity and industry collaborations could further marginalise vital mono-disciplinary work or researchers undertaking, for example, detailed archival activities.

At Royal Holloway, University of London, we are taking a proactive response to these challenges and opportunities through the formation of the Engaged Humanities Lab. The Lab is not a physical space but instead a rolling and responsive programme intended to create, through training, workshops, opportunities to engage with external partners, and pilot project funding, the intellectual space and supporting infrastructure for engagement in challenge-led and collaborative research. It is a programme designed to help colleagues and our partners outside higher education institutions experiment and explore together. As the Government’s R&D People and Culture Strategy makes clear, we need to ‘break down the barriers between research and innovation and wider society’, and bring about ‘a fundamental transformation in which researchers, policymakers and the public view research and innovation as a collective endeavour’. The Lab is designed to support this transformation, helping colleagues new to collaborative and challenge-led research to find their place in this landscape and those already engaged in this work to do so with more support, encouragement, and recognition. 

Arts and humanities researchers have a vital role to play in understanding the challenges of our time, and through this greater understanding enabling new insights, discoveries, and approaches to their solution. If research and innovation in the future is to genuinely be a collective social endeavour, this must continue to include arts and humanities disciplines, for if many of the challenges of our time are man-made, understanding ourselves, our histories, our cultures, and what has driven change through the ages is surely part of the solution.

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