MeCCSA Response: Developing AHRC’s Strategic Delivery Plan

MeCCSA Response to AHRC’s Strategic Delivery Plan
(Einar Thorsen and Anita Biressi on behalf of MeCCSA)

AHRC’s future priorities 

1. What in your view should AHRC’s priorities be?

Continue to fund a broad range of research, and develop this from the ground up – from small grants and ECR development, through to large scale funding. It should be an inclusive funder that seeks to stimulate research in areas (disciplines and institutions) that may not historically have benefitted from Research Council funding. This meets the remit to “fund excellent research projects not fully supported from other sources, including those of field-defining or transformative potential and deploying interdisciplinary and thematic approaches”.

2. Are there emerging themes which are not dealt with by the AHRC and should be?

There is no emphasis on information, representation and communication in the research themes and proposed priority areas of the AHRC. The role of media / communication / creative arts is underplayed in the strategic plan. The AHRC should explicitly recognise the fields of media, communication, and cultural studies in its remits; permitting researchers to identify themselves as scholars in these fields when applying for funding. These fields should be clearly identified as connecting with the emerging and strategic themes.

3. To what extent should AHRC be seeking to direct arts and humanities research (e.g. in the form of themed funding calls, or by funding leadership awards in specific subject areas)?

Themed funding calls are helpful to target and stimulate specific research. However, the decline in open calls is concerning because this radically reduces the opportunities to identify the themes of the future. ‘Outlier’ scholarship which is likely to pioneer new pathways may not fit these themes. Innovation may be stymied as researchers and their research offices tailor and massage extant and emergent work to fit the theme.

The emphasis on “major societal challenges” is indeed welcome, but it is important that this interpreted in a broad sense and not reduced to commercial drivers (e.g. as implied by “research that sustains the creative economy”). Making sure arts and humanities research is strongly represented in the newly-established Global Challenges Research Fund is essential here – as is the broader connection and engagement with inter-governmental organisations. Building on this, the AHRC could be even more purposive in encouraging international collaborations, and overseas beneficiaries. It is not clear how the AHRC envisages it will consult with the community or academic stakeholders (beyond its advisory bodies), and it would be helpful for the AHRC to play a more distinctive role in opening up such debates (about priorities for research funding) – further, involving, for example, learned bodies, and established research communities at UK HEIs.

4. In what ways should AHRC be engaging future generations of researchers (graduate students, early career researchers…) in the work of the AHRC, for example, in relation to horizon scanning and strategy development?

The provision of DTPs is crucial. These attract the best thinkers, practitioners and creative. AHRC should take the long view when developing DTPs. This might include planning/building post doctoral collaboration opportunities through specialist funding and support mechanisms.

The value and importance of arts and humanities research

5. In what ways should AHRC be making the case to UKRI/government/the taxpayer for the future of arts and humanities research? (And how, if at all, should we be making it differently for different audiences?) We would welcome succinct examples from your institutions/subject associations which could help us make this case forcefully.

The 2013 Arts Council Towards Plan A reports made this “Recommendation 4.3
Arts Council England to commission, working in partnership with DCMS, DfE, AHRC, key trusts and foundations, and the sector learning network, at least one ‘high burden of proof’ study – involving if appropriate randomised controlled trials – which would explore the impact of particular arts interventions in a key impact area (for instance health and well-being, education or community cohesion). This approach should be repeated at the
start of every three-year funding cycle.” The value and contribution to Arts and Humanities research is evidenced through many of the Impact case studies developed and articulated through the REF exercise, for example. Each successful case study demonstrates value in domains as various as well-being, media citizenship, community development, creative learning and social policy. AHRC research records, REF submissions and may other corpuses already house the evidence required to make this case forcefully. The case for the ‘holistic’ benefit of arts and media was well made by the Arts Council . It noted ‘By this we mean that the arts make vital contributions to all our lives in ways that should be considered individually – and collectively’ .

6. In what ways should AHRC place a greater emphasis on the relationship between research and practice?

Consider broadening definitions of practice based research and provide clearer distinctions between professional practice as it exists in industry, and what practice can be deemed to create knowledge (and thus be considered practice based research). Whilst there is an increasing recognition within film and documentary about these disciplinary boundaries, there remains some difficulty in incorporating or delineating journalism boundaries in this respect.

There is also a greater need to distinguish practice based research where interdisciplinary research is concerned – for example, where technological solutions are sought to social enquiries / humanities research, knowledge is co-produced.

In computer science for example, the expectation would be that the artefact itself is an advancement of knowledge, whilst in arts and humanities it might just be a novel application of a pre-existing technological solution.

Here it is important for the AHRC to firstly recognise that novel applications are indeed contributions to knowledge, but that they are not sufficient in and by themselves, and secondly to find ways of recognising and supporting actual technological advances within arts and humanities (where they may indeed draw on collaborations from other disciplines to execute these, but that the technical advances would not have happened without the direction of the arts and humanities field).

7. In what ways should AHRC place a greater emphasis on the relationship between research and teaching?

Encourage development of sample curricula based on research themes that can be used to broaden impact of knowledge creation within UK HEIs and also – crucially – in international partners. For example, as components of Global Challenges Research Fund you can foster more sustainable impact and capacity building through educational interventions that are informed and guided by the research objectives (so education as a pathway to future impact, as opposed to being pedagogical research per se).

8. What can AHRC do to increase diversity within its funding portfolio (in relation e.g. to diversity of project focus, researcher or institution)?

The AHRC should note that modern universities continue to be underrepresented in funded projects. Innovative research takes place across the sector including in the post 1992 institutions. Greater emphasis should be placed on supporting scholars and teams working in less well supported environments. Greater emphasis should be placed on supporting ECRs, scholars who have no prior experience as PI, and work in institutions where the research culture is in development.

Responding to a changing landscape

9. How fundamentally is the emphasis on collaboration with non-academic partners and interdisciplinarity changing the research landscape? What are the opportunities/challenges here?

Emphasis on collaboration with non-academic partners is a welcome addition from the perspective of societal impact. It ensures pathways to impact are considered and implemented at the start of the project, and has a greater chance of success – since the target stakeholders are engaged in creating a shared purpose for the research agenda. It also ensures non-academic partners gain greater awareness of scholarly work – since partnership will be developed for a much broader range of activities than just those that are funded. However, MeCCSA considers that making partnerships mandatory may undermine some experimental and potentially pioneering arts and humanities research, and research that pursues theoretical advancement. These are important contributions to knowledge and should be protected under AHRC remit. Similarly, we are concerned that – in the current funding climate there will be a gradual move towards favouring partnerships that co-fund or contribute resources to the research project. Again, this is particularly problematic in media, communication and cultural studies where potential partners may involve civil society organisations, the third sector, social entrepreneurs, NGOs and media/cultural organisations. These all have very limited resources and are unlikely to contribute match-funding.

10. How can we work together to find a common voice, particularly when we have to react quickly to new funding opportunities?

Ensure lines of communication are clear and contact databases are maintained. We also need to speak with one voice on strategic direction; agreeing a single framework within which to talk about value.

11. How, if at all, should AHRC change the way in which it makes awards (e.g. scale of opportunity, funding mechanisms, assessment procedures)?

Assessment protocols should ensure that panels and assessors originate from diverse backgrounds with regard to institution and experience.

12. What should AHRC’s role be (if any) in supporting public communication of research?

It should have a role. The RSA website offers a good model in this regard. See especially its Action and Research pages. The RSA is increasingly outward facing with great communication strategies.

13. What should AHRC’s role be (if any) in supporting wider public engagement with research?

Outside of the remit of the research projects funded by the AHRC (which may include very extensive public engagement) it doesn’t seem feasible to take on this wider role.

14. In what ways should AHRC be supporting the development of research impact?

Posted by Einar Thorsen