Edward Harcourt interview - AHRC's Delivery Plan
The Arts and Humanities Research Council's (AHRC) new Delivery Plan will break new ground by establishing priorities that are flexible and thematic rather than disciplinary, and underline the organisation's role as a national voice for the arts and humanities.
“We do arts and humanities research breathtakingly well in the UK and we are undoubtedly global leaders,” said Professor Edward Harcourt, Director of Research, Strategy and Innovation at AHRC.
“Our research has a positive social impact in all sorts of areas, from post-conflict recovery to mental and physical health. It helps drive our economy by supporting our creative industries, design, and the cultural and heritage sectors. Because university prestige depends so heavily on research, it also contributes significantly to the value of UK higher education as an export in its own right, attracting students from around the world.
“Arts and humanities research enables cultural participation, for instance when it brings us curated exhibitions and performances. Research also shapes collections, and what gets remembered and what gets forgotten in public memorials, and these choices help to define the complex cultures we belong to.”
The AHRC 2019 Delivery Plan makes a strong case for the value of arts and humanities research, and underlines AHRC’s role as a national voice for the arts and humanities.
“The Delivery Plan is the result of extensive consultation with the arts and humanities academic community,” said Professor Harcourt, “and we expect almost everyone engaged in arts and humanities research to be able to recognise themselves in it”.
The AHRC ran an extensive consultation during 2018. “We received a huge volume of replies, and are immensely grateful to everyone who contributed,” said Professor Harcourt. Opinions were invited both on issues concerning academic strategy - like striking a balance between open call and targeted funding - and on questions about process, such as peer review. Not every response can be reflected in the final document, but all responses will be used to provide the AHRC with guidance in our future thinking.
While previous AHRC strategy documents have set priorities by name-checking academic disciplines, with targeted funding commitments to match, the new Delivery Plan is different. “While it does set priorities, these are not organised by discipline, and they don't all come with a special budget attached,” said Professor Harcourt. “They are both broader and more flexible.”
The reason behind this is that AHRC - like all the research councils - now inhabits a new funding landscape created by the advent of hypothecated funds, from UK Research and Innovation and elsewhere.
“As a result, what we set as a priority has to span both how we want to deploy our discretionary funds and the bids we want to make into these central, hypothecated funds,” said Professor Harcourt.
Post-Brexit planning has also played a role in the construction of the strategy, as reflected in the fact that international partnerships are given a high priority.
“And not just partnerships with the West or with developing economic giants,” said Professor Harcourt, “but with many other countries as well. I'm very proud of the work we are doing with the global South through the Global Challenges Research Fund, and I want AHRC to continue to major on that.”
AHRC will also be continuing to develop its relationships with the many Independent Research Organisations it works with, as part of its mission to take research beyond the academic world to engage with the public.
Another major theme of the Delivery Plan is collaboration. “The creation of UKRI means that working together with the other councils is more important than ever,” said Professor Harcourt.
“But collaboration doesn’t just mean with other councils or academic partners. In recent years our council has done ground-breaking work with the creative industries, and adding value to the creative economy through research continues to be a priority for us.”
Knitting together these diverse themes is an overarching determination to champion the arts and humanities, in dialogue with government, with the general public and internationally.
“The new Centre for Cultural Value will help to capture the ways in which cultural activity is valuable, in terms of improving public health and wellbeing, or in many other ways. As this work continues, it will enable us to speak with still greater confidence,” said Professor Harcourt.
Finally, and notwithstanding the new importance of hypothecated funds, providing the resources to explore the arts and humanities wherever curiosity leads also remains a major priority.
“Our two biggest spends are graduate training and open call funding,” said Professor Harcourt. “We have to maintain the skills pipeline, to ensure that the wealth of knowledge held by the current generation of arts and humanities scholars is not lost, and also because that knowledge has a broader social role.
“And we have to make sure that scholars have the resources to explore their subjects in an open-ended way.
“This is how new research priorities with long-term impacts emerge - supporting the great ideas that will shape our future.”