Arts scholars prepare for row over funding arrangements

One little-noticed section of the Dearing report suggests that grants for research in the humanities should come under the eventual auspices of the Department of Trade and Industry. The academic community affected says this would be a disaster. But will they be swayed by the offer of more money?
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Imagine a deputation to Downing Street led by Sir Isaiah Berlin, backed up by Sir Keith Thomas, Marilyn Butler, Terry Eagleton, Michael Dummett, Sir Peter Strawson and other distinguished historians, philosophers and English scholars. The disaffection of the country's humanities elite would not shake the Government, but it would mark a serious and embarrassing rupture in relations between ministers and a significant section of the academic community.

The break has not happened yet, but there is a row brewing. The cause of dissent is a little-noticed section of the Dearing report which proposes a big change in arrangements for research grants for scholars in the arts and humanities. The sums of money are not huge, but if accepted, the plan is for philosophers and historians to have their research paid for by the Office of Science and Technology, which is part of Margaret Beckett's command at the Department of Trade and Industry. And that - in the words of outgoing president of the British Academy Sir Keith Thomas - would be a "disaster".

In Germany all serious scholarly work, whether in the physical sciences, sociology or history, is lumped together as Wissenschaft. In the Anglo- Saxon academic tradition, however, a sharp break is made between science and "scholarship", generally taken to mean sitting in libraries reading learned tomes. Funding arrangements follow.

The science budget is the pounds 1.3bn a year stream of money through the Natural Environment and Engineering and other research councils. Scholarship in the humanities used to be paid for by direct grants from the old Department of Education and Science but is now administered by the British Academy. The Academy is itself a hybrid. It bestows honorific titles on exceptional English lit scholars, historians (and economists and sociologists, though only recently); it also supports, thanks to a government grant from the Department for Education, archaeological work in Rome and Athens and dishes out small grants for translation and similar literary work. How, asks Peter Brown, its secretary, is all that going to fit in the "culture of trade and industry"?

Sir Ron Dearing, perhaps in pursuit of administrative tidiness, recommended the humanities get their own research council. He sweetened the proposal with the suggestion that money (around pounds 25m a year at present) be doubled - acknowledging how much more it costs, in this age of computers, to do state-of-the-art translations, let alone archaeological work involving high science and high technology.

The suggestion is the new Humanities and Arts Research Council (HARC) be "attached" to the existing research council administrative centre in Swindon. That is the point at which the fun starts.

Under the Tories - and there are signs the thrust is continuing under Labour - the (science) research councils and the Economic and Social Research Councils were pushed towards work of more relevance to the United Kingdom plc. They combine all themes and big programmes in centrally administered research centres.

As one Greek scholar plaintively put it, "how am I going to fare when all I want is pounds 1,000 to go and look at some original manuscripts in Thessalonika?" Sir Keith Thomas, an historian, says the "scientific model is not appropriate for us, with an industrialist in the chair and half the council members from the world of business."

Meanwhile there are anxieties about what would happen to the British Academy. Always something of a Cinderella compared with the ancient and prestigious Royal Society, the Academy has lately expanded its role into awarding grants to postgraduates and administering an extensive if comparatively cheap research programme. Deprived of state money for this work, would it shrink back into being a learned society with a part-time secretary? What would happen, for example, to the British School in Rome, a world centre for excavation? The British Academy is going to be very reluctant to give it up, yet logically it ought to pass to the proposed HARC.

Humanities research may be small beer, but scholars are a fractious bunch and feelings are starting to run high. Charles Feinstein of All Souls Oxford, an economic historian, says scholars might not mind if the HARC were entirely separate and only shared the post room with the ESRC; anything else could mean adopting its utilitarian standpoint and bureaucratic procedures. "Which would be rebarbative to many in the humanities."

Consultation on the Dearing proposals ends in three weeks' time. It is not that humanities scholars are against all change. Indeed they have sounded a mercenary note. Sir Keith Thomas says "change is only justified if there is genuinely going to be new money for arts and humanities."