The new man charged with handing out cash to postgrads in the humanities talks to Grace McCann

What do Mary Whitehouse, Chinese grammar and writings about asylum seekers have in common? They are all specialist subjects of Professor Tony McEnery, the new director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

McEnery joined the Bristol-based council in September from Lancaster University, where he ran the department of linguistics and English language. As a Lancaster lifer - he went there as an undergraduate and stayed 22 years - his appointment to a role that requires lots of top-level hobnobbing might seem a surprise one.

But McEnery had a reputation for getting out and collaborating with contacts all over the world. He was in Kathmandu when he received an e-mail inviting him to apply for his new job ("from the heading I didn't realise what it was and nearly deleted it!").

A modest man, he takes some persuading to say why he thinks he has landed this job. But once he gets going it emerges that he's been responsible for about £2.5m worth of grants over the years, has been funded by private companies such as BT, and holds an honorary professorship in China. And he's terribly prolific.

He has joined the council at an interesting time. It officially became a research council this year, following Lord Dearing's 1997 recommendation that the arts and humanities should have one. It was wound up as a company and charity and became a government body run by the Office of Science and Technology, putting it on an even footing with the other research councils.

It now has more money and is better placed to influence policy and develop cross-council initiatives. It funds research and postgraduate study to the tune of £80m a year, making about 700 research and 1,500 postgraduate awards.

McEnery arrived at the council hot on the heels of its new chief executive, Philip Esler, a lawyer and theologian who was previously professor of biblical criticism and vice-principal for research at St Andrew's University.

The two have big ambitions. There is an existing delivery plan to work to but scope to shape and redirect the field in the medium to long term, says McEnery. He says he enjoys a good working relationship with his new boss. "We live round the corner from one another, which helps!"

One priority is getting the fruits of council-funded research to as wide an audience as possible. A knowledge transfer division was set up within the council this year by Esler's predecessor, Geoffrey Crossick. The division is crucial for getting across the value of art and humanities research, says McEnery. "People voluntarily engage with the field - they'll visit an ancient site or an art gallery. Not many people will watch an autopsy or pick up the Lancet for fun. This is a boon and a bane to us - people accept the arts and humanities as part of their everyday lives, so we have to remind them that it's important and needs funding."

A knowledge transfer success story is the Mitchell and Kenyon project - the restoration of the extraordinary find in the basement of a Blackburn shop of 800 rolls of film documenting everyday Edwardian life. The project was first funded by the council and generated a lot of public interest.

"We want to try to facilitate more projects like that or certainly spot them within our portfolio," says McEnery. The knowledge transfer agenda includes building strong relationships with organisations such as English Heritage and the National Trust ("they provide a natural route for knowledge transfer") and supporting award holders in producing popularised versions of their work, which are accessible to the average reader browsing in Waterstones. One way in which knowledge transfer is being achieved is through £5,000 dissemination grants, which are offered to all grant-award holders at the end of their award, to promote their research, by touring schools, for example.

Another big priority for the council is international engagement. The council has a limited record here but in some ways this is advantageous, says McEnery. "We are coming from behind, so can see what has and hasn't worked for other research councils." The idea is to arrange collaborative projects between researchers here and abroad. He and Esler hope to be globetrotting soon, setting up bilateral agreements.

Running alongside all these plans are moves to develop strategic direction in the arts and humanities. "Because we've lacked a research council up until this year, the field hasn't been as exposed to strategic initiatives as other areas," says McEnery. The council's first strategic programmes, on diasporas and landscapes, are being rolled out, and more are planned. The idea is that researchers (not postgraduate researchers) will bid for money pre-allocated to these fields.

Strategic engagement with universities and other research councils is also on the agenda. An example is an initiative launched by the AHRC, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England to encourage the study of Chinese, Japanese, the languages of the former Soviet Union and of the Arab world. The council has also ring-fenced PhDs for emerging or endangered subjects.

Part of McEnery's remit is to look into new modes of funding, and reshaping current funding programmes. "For example, we might want to introduce some grants focused more clearly around knowledge transfer. Or collaborative grants with public or non-public sector organisations." And where reviews of grant spending are critical, he is prepared to adjust spending according to what's generating results.

Postgraduate research grants are currently doled out by the council via an annual competition. "There is an annual call, and all hell is let loose," says McEnery. This is now under review. "We are trying to assess what the justification is for doing it in that way and explore different models of doing it."

After years of writing grant applications, it's exciting for McEnery to be handing out cash himself. "I am strongly committed to the health of the arts and humanities and this was a job I just had to apply for."

McEnery's commitment extends to keeping personally active in research. "If you have a strong intellectual life you should be able to do a full-time job and research on the side."

He has just finished two papers. "One on a moral panic about bad language in late 17th- and early 18th-century England, and another on Mary Whitehouse's view of language in the media," he says.

"I'll still be scribbling in my coffin."