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Kids grow up quickly

Professor Rick Rylance became CEO of the AHRC in 2009. Here he reflects on the AHRC’s achievements in its first ten years.

The AHRC's outgoing Chief Executive, Professor Rick Rylance

What changed when the AHRC became a Research Council?

When the AHRC was formed I was a strong supporter of it. It seemed to me that there was an advocacy role to be had, which would be easier from the inside than the outside. Becoming a Research Council was a recognition of the esteem we were held in, and a demonstration that the Government was taking an interest in the Arts and Humanities. It showed that we were now in the mainstream.

Does the move to join the other Research Councils in Swindon fit in with that – a move away from the idea of the AHRC as being exceptional?

Yes. The main reason I supported the move from Bristol in 2010 was to get into the mainstream of Research Council work. I never bought the argument that we would suffer by adjacency to the other Councils: we’ve strengthened our position by the association.

As well as being the CEO of the AHRC, you’ve also been the Chair of the RCUK Executive Group for the last four years. What’s the role of the AHRC in the broader research landscape?

Interdisciplinary work is very close to my heart, and I felt that it was something that we could develop much more positively

One thing I did early on was to get my senior team to engage themselves as thoroughly as possible with the work of RCUK and the other Research Councils. That’s something I’m really proud of – it was a matter of deliberate policy, to get ourselves involved. And it’s had significant collateral benefits, around the way that we engage people and the way we develop common projects, and in making Arts and Humanities expertise, and the AHRC, much more prominent.

So there’s been an increasing emphasis on collaboration, during your time at AHRC?

Yes – interdisciplinary work is very close to my heart, and I felt that it was something that we could develop much more positively.

So the other side of the coin is – what’s distinctive about the AHRC, what sets it apart?

First there’s the kind of expertise we bring. Historical perspectives, insights into behavioural motivations, and asking what culture adds to communities or whole populations, which can contribute to good health and wellbeing.

Then there’s our kind of analytic take on shared problems. There’s a Humanities way of looking at the world – historicising, contextualising, taking an interest in processes that are of long duration, or that are complex and sometimes ambiguous, and having a different kind of approach to evidence and data-gathering. That’s what other organisations value.

Have you noticed changes in the way that the AHRC is perceived?

I have, for all sorts of reasons. We as a community and as an organisation have got better at giving an account of ourselves. Then there’s the fact that the Creative Economy has become the UK’s fastest-expanding sector, growing at rates that are inconceivable in other parts of the economy: that’s given our voice weight. And there’s our visible presence in the way that we fund things in the public sphere: through museum exhibitions, TV programmes, and films that get nominated for Oscars, for example.

Is it fair to say that the AHRC has a different ‘personality’ from the other Councils?

We do have the personality of the new kid on the block, though new kids grow up quickly. We still have a freshness of approach.

A lot of people say that the AHRC is brave – taking a chance with projects that you don’t know will pay off. Do you agree?

I guess if we’re brave, it’s in ways that aren’t that different from the other Research Councils, which also make long-term investments. But there is a kind of bravery about what we do, insofar as we’re willing to try new developmental possibilities.

The best thing we’ve done is put the arts and humanities on the map

We’ve thought a lot about how, in the UK, we have an outstanding research base in the Arts and Humanities, by international comparison. And we have a Creative Economy which seems to be outstripping the rest of the planet. Our cultural sector, meanwhile, is the envy of the world – our theatre, our museums, our music. How do we try to bring those pedigree achievements, this cultural and creative infrastructure, and this research base together?

We came to the conclusion that you can’t do that by simply issuing an orthodox call for research proposals and hoping for the best. You’ve got to intervene creatively.

So what do you think the AHRC’s main achievements have been, over the last decade?

In no particular order, there’s our contribution to our understanding of our history, our culture, our belief systems, our art, our capacities as a nation, and the skills we need, from heritage and archaeology through to modern languages. It’s that understanding of ourselves, and the way we contribute to it.

There’s also our international presence. We’re very prominent in Europe – we lead on HERA (the Humanities in the European Research Area joint research programme). We’ve also developed a lively and extensive offer in China, working on digital copyright, for example.

And I’m particularly proud of the New Generation Thinkers initiative – giving young researchers the means to engage in their own research, and ways of communicating what they’ve done. It illustrates a lot of what I’m proud of in our work at the AHRC – it’s about creating new opportunities, thinking in new ways, and addressing the need to create openings for young people. Nurturing young talent is crucial.

What underpins all of this is partnership and collaboration. Other organisations want to work with us. The people who are active in the museums community or the Creative Economy want to talk to us. The trade bodies, such as music associations, want to get involved with us. It’s now understood not only that we have significant presence, but also significant expertise in looking at the problems that these organisations are interested in.

This prominence, plus our willingness to convene partnerships and collaborations, and our ability to get people to work together, have been major strengths for us.

And finally, what would you like to see coming out of the AHRC’s tenth anniversary?

The most modest expectation would be that we’d get due recognition for our achievements – this is a great opportunity for us to display what we’ve been doing.

Then there’s the chance to use the anniversary as a vehicle for engaging with the public, and with other organisations. We can invite people to our party, with a view to thinking about what we can do next, and how we can work with them in future.

The anniversary needs to be forward-looking. There’s no point having a self-congratulatory series of events where we just applaud our past. We have to think about where we’re going now, and what we’re doing next.

What will the world look like, for example, from the point of view of increasingly automated systems, where decision-making, surgical procedures, and even your choice of music is all automatic, and where cars can be self-driving? What will that new world look and feel like?

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