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The art of engagement

Image: david fraser [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Boosting humanities’ contribution to interdisciplinary initiatives

In the past couple of years, arts and humanities disciplines have come in from the cold with regard to interdisciplinary funding. Recent UK Research and Innovation calls tackling the climate and ecological crises have been led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, for example. 

Arts and humanities research is often a snug fit with other priorities, such as the Civic University Network, and the drive to ensure research has more impact in society through collaborations with business and community groups.

In view of this—and to help researchers get involved in these kinds of challenges—Royal Holloway, University of London launched its Engaged Humanities Lab in March 2022. Co-directors Chris Daley and Matthew Smith explain the thinking that led to the lab’s creation—and how funders have responded.

What are your roles in the lab?

Chris Daley: I’m the director from the research office. My role is partially about encouraging academics to interact positively with funding calls, particularly ones that are cross-council, or looking to partner with industry. I’m trying to show arts and humanities researchers that
their research has a place within that broader, challenge-led research agenda.

Matthew Smith: I’m a senior lecturer in public humanities. I’m also the school’s director of external engagement. My role
is about creating opportunities
for colleagues to better understand partners’ needs and priorities, and how our research activity can support and find solutions to some of those challenges.

CD: Matthew has a lot of connections in the heritage and museums sectors. We aim to translate the university’s academic work to those sectors and explain how it is valuable to them, while they tell us their challenges and how arts and humanities scholarship can help with solving those.

Is an engaged humanities lab a new concept?

CD: There are multiple types of humanities labs globally, but in the UK they tend to be focused more on digital humanities. Therefore, we thought what made this unique for the UK at least was going beyond that remit.

Do you have a physical lab?

MS: No, and it was a very deliberate decision not to lobby the university for a physical space. We didn’t want the
space to determine what we
did. We wanted it to be conversations with partners or with colleagues around particular training needs that would determine what we do.

Do you have specific goals for boosting research income through the lab?

CD: It’s not as if there are key performance indicators or anything. Royal Holloway is perceived as being high quality, but also quite focused on individual research—winning a lot of fellowships with the Leverhulme Trust, for example, which is great. 

We don’t want to stop academics doing individual research. But there are other agendas out there that funders are pursuing that are increasingly prominent, particularly around cross-council funding and multidisciplinary research, and addressing societal challenges. 

From a purely pragmatic perspective, obviously those kind of schemes tend to be bigger grants. We can’t deny there’s a pragmatic ‘hard numbers’ element to it, but the broader philosophy behind it is one of encouraging the arts and humanities to thrive in the future, working in a co-creative, collaborative way with partners beyond the academy.

How far did the UK’s policy environment inspire the lab?

CD: It’s certainly come out of a particular policy context. Funding from UKRI continues to be cross-disciplinary. The government hasn’t stripped away funding for the arts and humanities; it has become more focused on multidisciplinary awards and on relationships with industry. There’s a perception among arts and humanities researchers
that only scientists can go for this. We feel there’s a great opportunity for arts and humanities research to lead.

MS: Rather than responding to a particular policy announcement, or a concept like levelling up, it’s more about trying to help shift the perception of what arts and humanities researchers are doing away from this rather negative narrative and ‘ivory tower’ cliché.

Very few of us want to be tucked away in an archive—away from the world. We want to be part of addressing these issues and showing that arts and humanities research has an important role to play in addressing a whole host of challenges.

How have funders responded to the lab?

CD: We’ve had quite positive responses from funders. The British Academy, which obviously has done a lot of work in this area, has been very positive. 

The tough part will probably be when we have to try to speak to actual policymakers about what we’re doing. We’re not at that stage yet, but we do hope to get involved with All-Party Parliamentary Groups and select committees. One of the next stages of the lab is to try to take it to people on the ground in Westminster.   

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com