“… humanities and social science research is not always valued on the public stage …’ Thus spake Alun Evans, the Chief Executive of The British Academy, commenting last week on a new £10m ($A18 million) initiative “to promote and support high quality research” in the humanities and social sciences across the UK.

The award, from the The Wolfson Foundation, will enable the British Academy to deliver what it says will be a “transformative program to support early career researchers, develop an international community of scholars and create an intellectual hub at the Academy’s home on Carlton House Terrace in London”.

The “cornerstone of the initiative”, it says, would be the British Academy/Wolfson Fellowships for Global Engagement, which would aim “to nurture the next generation of research leaders in the humanities and social sciences …”

At more or less the same time the humanities in Australia were reeling after it became known that Senator Simon Birmingham had intervened when education minister in 2017 and 2018 to deny funding to 11 Australian Research Council (ARC) grants, all in the humanities.


Shock and anger

The Australian Academy of the Humanities expressed shock and anger at the move, with Academy President Professor Joy Damousi saying: “Withdrawing funding by stealth threatens the survival of a strong humanities teaching and research sector, something no democratic society can do without.”

Birmingham responded in a Tweet, saying: “I’m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar’.”

Meanwhile, back in the northern hemisphere, the British Academy said it intended to create a new body, the Gladstone Institute, which would “enable early career researchers to collaborate, across subjects and institutions, to inform policy and practice beyond the academic world”.

Writing in the highered policy platform Wonkhe, Alun Evans said that knowledge and skills from disciplines such as history, anthropology, philosophy and law were essential to understanding ourselves and the world around us.

“Major tech companies in the US are hiring liberal arts graduates to help them understand the human impact of the technological whirlwind we are living through. These subjects help us to create a society in which we would all wish to live”.


‘We need to get better at making the case’

However, humanities and social science research was “not always valued on the public stage – hence why a discussion of the impact of Brexit on higher education and research is framed too often as a matter for ‘science’, rather than for all of the disciplines”.

He added: “We need to get better at making the case for our subjects for ourselves.”

As a major research funder, the British Academy was all too aware of the funding challenges faced by humanities and social science researchers.

“We also share the sense of joy when a grant catapults a researcher onto a wider stage or enables them to make exciting connections with colleagues around the world.”

The new Fellowships would nurture the “next generation of research leaders in the humanities and social sciences” and would give early career researchers “the freedom to focus on outstanding research and to ensure it reaches a global audience”.

Evans added that “it is not all about money”.

“Part of telling our own story is having a dedicated place to share and engage with research. Just as we have centres of scientific excellence … so we need an ‘intellectual hub’ for the humanities and social sciences.

“This exciting initiative will allow us to give our subjects a home and to generate confidence in the value of the UK’s outstanding humanities and social sciences.”


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