Higher Education: Ending a cultural contradiction: Whitehall has a chance to put humanities research on a par with science and revive the British Academy into the bargain, says David Walker

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH Academy's annual report notes a recent grant. It sounds like one to which C P Snow would have warmed, marrying as it does the 'two cultures' in harmonious scholarly union. Researchers at the University of Bradford are using neutron activation analysis in studying Roman pottery from sites in the north of England and beyond Hadrian's Wall.

For official purposes, that study is classed as 'humanities'. That means, in terms of funding, it is in the province of the British Academy, which in 1991 received pounds 6.6m from the Department of Education and Science to distribute to language, literature and historical projects - ranging from a complete edition of the poems of John Clare, through a study of French anarchists between the wars, to work on Sumerian grammar.

When it came to 'science', public money flowed in a separate stream within the same government department through the Advisory Board for the Research Councils.

But since the general election the DES is no more. Whitehall has been re- engineered. Funds for science are now controlled by William Waldegrave, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and channelled through the Office of Science and Technology (OST).

Mr Waldegrave's Ministry of Public Services and Science will, over the next few weeks, witness the mobilisation of the scientific establishment in determining how public money is spent on research. Senior scientists - mostly Fellows of the Royal Society - will be granted audience with Professor Bill Stewart, head of the OST. Mr Waldegrave plans to publish a White Paper on government support for science in the new year, and Professor Stewart is his principal adviser on it. The natural scientists are arguing about big sums.

But the White Paper also offers an opportunity for humanities research. This funding, channelled through the British Academy - a chartered body that is not formally part of the government machine - has so far remained the responsibility of the new Department for Education.

The result is an administrative anomaly which to some eyes looks like the return of Lord Snow's worst fears: 'In a country priding itself upon its appreciation of the past and its artists and thinkers, it is difficult to comprehend why humanities research is not treated in a manner comparable with that of the social and natural sciences.' That complaint comes from a closely argued report about to land on Mr Waldegrave's desk, representing the opinions of the non-scientific academic establishment.

The report comes from a panel set up by the British Academy in alliance with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which sees an opportunity to gain a little elbowroom over the much larger science budgets. Diplomatically, the ESRC and the academy asked a distinguished biologist and Fellow of the Royal Society - Sir Brian Follett, of Bristol University - to chair the panel.

The ESRC will shortly meet to endorse the panel's report - and when it does, Mr Waldegrave will be given a firm steer. The recommendation is for a separate Humanities Research Council, placed under the same umbrella as the science research councils. 'It is of paramount importance that the humanities remain part of the mainstream national research effort: only in this way do we believe that long-term excellence can be maintained,' the report says.

However, the Follett committee has hedged its bets by also floating the idea of a single humanities and economic and social research council. The thinking has a lot to do with numbers. A Humanities Research Council could expect a budget of pounds 20m at most: it would be a dwarf among giants.

But a body embracing both humanities and social sciences would, some think, carry more weight - and not only financially. Where, with any intellectual rigour, can a dividing line be drawn between economic history (an ESRC preserve) and history at large (British Academy)? Or within anthropology? Or cultural and media studies? A joint council could eliminate boundary disputes.

Mr Waldegrave will be aware of the strong sentiments evoked by the mere suggestion of a joint research council. The suggestion that the funding of literary and historical work should involve economists and sociologists has united Oxonians as politically and temperamentally opposed as Lord Beloff and Terry Eagleton.

The Follett committee, aware of the jealousies, says its clear preference is for separate bodies, perhaps cutting costs by sharing the offices. Only a separate HRC would, the report concludes, be able to speak up for by humanities scholars. And Sir Anthony Kenny, president of the British Academy, says: 'Among Fellows, there is a strong body of opinion in favour of the establishment of a fully fledged HRC.'

Will Mr Waldegrave listen to the case for change? There is a worry over money. The Follett recommendation would require public money, in setting- up and running costs. It might sharpen the lobby for more favourable treatment of humanities scholarship. And Mr Waldegrave has other fish to fry: the engineers are discontent with the structure of the Science and Engineering Research Council; so are the biologists.

And yet, for a government concerned about academic standards, there might be a bonus in reorganising humanities research. For perhaps the most intriguing aspect of reform is what might happen to the British Academy - an oddly marginal body. The academy earns widespread commendation for its work - its Latin dictionary, its edition of Jeremy Bentham's works, its support of British Schools in Rome, Athens and the Middle East. But its public profile is low. It never was the Academie francaise, seeking to lay down rules of spelling and literary style. It is not the Royal Society, either: an institution with huge international prestige whose fellowship is lusted after by scientists craving the one thing money cannot buy - the approbation of peers.

When social sciences took off a generation ago, the academy missed the flight. How can the same institution oversee scholarship in letters, classics and history, while also conferring prestige on the best and brightest of sociologists, psychologists or economists? Why, to put it in starkly personal terms, is the chairman of the ESRC - a sociologist esteemed by his academic peers - not a Fellow of the British Academy?

Here is a chance to remould the academy. It has, as Sir Anthony Kenny agrees, acquired too many functions; acting as an agent of the government in distributing funds has upset its balance. Freed from the task of administering research grants, it could blossom as a non-scientists' hall of fame. In an era when rapid change in the universities has eroded the foundations of academic standing, it could restore norms.

Even if the professors of classics, history and art cannot aspire to the bureaucratic firepower of the Fellows of the Royal Society, they hope to make enough noise in the next few weeks to convince Mr Waldegrave that he must tackle the cultural contradiction in the research grant regime.

(Photograph omitted)

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