Professor Roey Sweet talks about her first year as AHRC's Director of Partnerships and Engagement


Justine Reilly

Professor Roey Sweet - Director of Partnerships and Engagement.

The arts and humanities community is a dynamic, open minded sector that is in the best shape it can be to face the future, according to the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Director of Partnerships and Engagement.

“It's been a steep learning curve,” says Professor Roey Sweet as she reflects back on her first year overseeing the research council’s diverse partnerships, including those with its Independent Research Organisations (IROs) and international research partners.

“But I now have a much deeper understanding of the brilliant work AHRC does both responding to and shaping the research landscape.

“As AHRC moved into UKRI, it was a challenging but exciting time to be joining the organisation and I have enjoyed engaging with the wider research community.”

A historian of eighteenth-century urban and cultural history in Britain, Professor Sweet has been a lecturer at the University of Leicester for over two decades and has been both Head of Department and the Director of the Centre for Urban History.

“Coming from a university background, I was obviously very familiar with what the AHRC does in terms of funding grants and calls - but what I hadn't fully appreciated is how proactive the AHRC is,” says Professor Sweet.

“So many people working in universities think that AHRC is just a body that distributes money. But not many people realise how much it seeks to be an active participant in influencing and directing the agenda.”

“In my role I've been sent out to talk to people, and I've now got much better sense of how innovative research is, how exciting it is, and how multi-disciplinary and public facing it is.”

Of course, 2018 was a particularly important year for AHRC as it became part of the wider UKRI family, which brings together the seven research councils, Innovate UK and a new body, Research England.

“This has obviously had a big impact in terms of AHRC actually being able to make its case for the arts and humanities within a much bigger UKRI landscape,” says Professor Sweet.

“Before I came to AHRC I wasn't really sure what the implications of being part of UKRI would be. But now I have seen first hand how it helps us emphasise the value of cultural knowledge.”

Professor Sweet cites the launch of the Creative Industries Clusters programme as an important example of how this new collaborative agenda can work.

This initiative, led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and funded through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, is an ambitious research and development investment to establish nine Creative R&D Partnerships within existing creative clusters across the UK.

“The programme shows how AHRC has been driving the creative industries strategy, breaking down the barriers between universities and other sectors,” says Professor Sweet.

“It is very interesting and important work that demonstrates how arts and humanities research doesn't just take place in libraries. We are engaging with the creative industries - and this in turn is having a real impact on our research.

“Digital technology has transformed the way we work, particularly in disciplines like archaeology and history, and taken them into very different directions by stimulating new ways of working.

“This really is one of the things that has most impressed me most about AHRC - seeing first hand the huge diversity and extraordinary range of work that is done.”

Another major change has been the increased emphasis on hypothecated funding, which has brought with it some challenges.

“Some researchers found it hard to see how they could fit in with this agenda,” says Professor Sweet. “But it’s been astonishing - inspiring -  to see how creatively the community has responded and adapted to this new landscape to produce really useful, interesting outputs.

“This has also allowed the AHRC to much more successfully position itself within UKRI.”

But AHRC's role is not just to prove the case for the arts and humanities within academia and government, it must be out talking to the public as well - it is spending taxpayers' money, after all.

“What we are doing with the IROs is very important to demonstrate the importance of the link between research and the cultural products that we all enjoy,” says Professor Sweet.

“In order for people to go and see these wonderful exhibitions that hundreds of thousands of people enjoy - and generate millions of pounds in tourist revenue - we need research.

“And it's not just about money, heritage research also boosts cultural identity and awareness.

“These things are hard to quantify, but they matter. We are always trying to articulate the value of what we do, we are getting better at it, and our strategic delivery plan is evidence of this.”

Professor Sweet says that the current plan has much more emphasis on drawing together a cross disciplinary narrative, whether that's thinking about the problems around mental health, social exclusion or digital innovation.

“I think AHRC is stepping up a gear in terms of being able to find opportunities to disseminate its message and address the challenges identified by government,” she says.

“For us as humanities researchers, who haven't perhaps historically been as accustomed to this as chemists or engineers, this can be difficult. But we are proving that we can that we bring with us a great deal of skill, knowledge and experience and apply them to these challenges.

“We've seen that our research questions often complement those in other sectors: developing software that can read and transcribe crabbed sixteenth century handwriting is not only helpful for historians, it helps data scientists push their coding skills and develop new software.

“Brexit will have an impact next year - what that will be, we don't know - but at the very least it will drive us to develop new international partnerships and collaborations, which is a very positive thing.

“There will be new opportunities. Personally, I have been out to Russia to forge new links with academics over there, and this probably wouldn't have happened without Brexit to focus the mind.

“There will be challenges, for sure - the ways in which we access European funding will change and some arts and humanities disciplines are particularly exposed. Archaeology, for example, gets around 38% of its funding from the EU.

“But the arts and humanities are a truly dynamic sector, and I have seen during my time here just how open-minded our researchers are and I genuinely believe that it is in the best shape it can be to face the future.

“British universities are seen as places that understand impact, co design and bringing research out of the universities and into the public domain - we just need to share that with the rest of the world.”

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