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Humanities research has huge potential impact

Histories of social revolutions. Close readings of ancient and modern poets. Dialect dictionaries. Explanations of why we have an “other minds problem”. These are the kinds of things I’ve always wanted scholars to produce. And, like many colleagues, I’ve sometimes snorted at the requirement to find “pathways to impact” for them, as the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) still demands, even if the application form no longer has a specific page for Isn’t it unfair to demand instrumental justifications for research that’s just good for its own sake?

In 2018, I became the AHRC’s director of research, strategy and innovation. I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think I had robust answers to that question. What are my answers now that my four very stimulating years in the role have just come to an end?

For one thing, we barely know what we mean when we say something is done “for its own sake.” For some, playing the piano for pleasure is a clear example. For others, doing so is pleasant, so it improves well-being, and perhaps mental health. So the reasons to do it are good, but instrumental.

Moreover, “instrumental” and “for its own sake” sometimes answer different questions. Yo might do research for the delight of increasing my understanding. But when research funders ask about its impact, they are interested in why taxpayers’ money should be invested in it –rather than nurses or fuel subsidies. That is not an improper question, even if the answer is not what propels individual researchers to their lab or library.

Crucially, however, arts and humanities research can have huge impact even by “pathways to impact” standards. At the AHRC, I helped to develop a series of large-scale research programs. One – “Towards a National Collection” – uses digital methods to drive new cross-collection research and is already in full flow. Others are just launching, thanks to last autumn’s multi-year funding settlement.

Their themes range from design for net zero to arts and health, and from AI ethics to heritage science. They are all highly interdisciplinary, exemplifying how STEM funding can be spent better by bringing the arts and humanities on board. And they will have a significant impact on how we live, by enabling businesses to access universities’ design expertise, or by devising new models for health service providers to make access to culture part of their standard repertoire.

Still, the recent Research Excellence Framework scored arts and humanities lower, on average, than STEM for impact (although marginally ahead of social science). So isn’t there something to worry that the arts and humanities struggle with impact?

UK Research and Innovation’s 2020 Covid-19 call demonstrates both the truth and the deep untruth in this. The AHRC received hundreds of applications, and a good number got funded – concerning urgent problems in ethics and law, for example, or public health communication. But many didn’t, because we could not say hand-on-heart that they would have a significant impact within the grant’s 18-month lifetime.

But that doesn’t mean that arts and humanities research doesn’t have impact. Why did the UK vaccination program start with the old and vulnerable, rather than (like China) with essential workers? Why was government policy an agonized vacillation between protecting the economy and protecting the vulnerable? These choices are manifestations of the UK’s ethos and culture. That an 18-month research project cannot change those things is itself evidence that our whole approach to the pandemic – and not just the pandemic – is profoundly conditioned by currents of thought that, if it makes sense to classify them at all, belong to the arts and humanities.

Which learned folk of yesteryear would have the greatest headaches with impact? Frege and Russell, perhaps, the founders of modern logic. But without them, there would be no AI, and so no contemporary world as we know it.

Or consider the Reformation. Although scarcely a research programme, it owes more than some seismic historical changes to theologians, political theorists and linguists – ancestors of modern arts and humanities scholars. Its impacts on us today – from the nation state to the idea of ​​individual conscience – are incalculable.

Then there’s Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, whose “felicific calculus” gave us the cost-benefit analysis, used in all public spending decisions. The damnable irony for a research council trying to prove its worth in the lifetime of a spending review is that these enormous impacts are so long-term. Policymakers should dial down on Bentham’s “propinquity” and “intensity” – high short-term impact – and think harder about his “duration” and “fecundity”.

Yet the passions roused by recent “culture wars” show that people also care deeply about history and culture right now – and not just for their relevance to health, productivity or soft power. Just pause on that briefly and marvel: major AHRC themes are suddenly urgent without any nod to the usual forms of impact.

There is no mistaking the dangers here: intervening while remaining even-handed, as befits a public body, requires considerable care. A credible strategy would target funding on research that displays Western culture and history as parts of larger global wholes. Countless topics suggest themselves: connections between the Western Middle Ages and medieval Islam; pre-colonial histories and art histories of Africa; or comparative Indian, Arab, Chinese and Western perspectives on philosophical problems.

Some of this is already happening. But a funding agency could amplify individual contributions by saying what they add up to: a cultural and historical vision that both we and those we badge as “others” can gradually come to jointly own.

Such a program – neither academia-as-activism nor Our Island Story – would not only produce results of real scholarly value. It would help to light a path through today’s conflicted territory, shaping the cultures of tomorrow as only the arts and humanities can.

Edward Harcourt is professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford. He has just finished a four-year secondment as director of research, strategy and innovation at the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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