A timely investment in the humanities and social science

Earlier this week, I listened to Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse debate Higher Education Minister Sam Gyimah on the BBC’s Today programme on whether a hard Brexit risked harming UK science and research.

“Science matters to us all”, Nurse said. “It is not just an issue for pointy-headed people in white coats in laboratories. It is absolutely crucial for driving a sustainable economy; it’s important for our nation’s health and wellbeing; it’s really crucial to protecting the environment.”

Pointy-headed people in laboratories aside, the same could be said of the importance of the humanities and social sciences, the subjects which the British Academy champions.

Knowledge and skills from disciplines such as history, anthropology, philosophy and law are essential to understanding ourselves and the world around us. For example, major tech companies in the US are hiring liberal arts graduates to help them understand the human impact of the technological whirlwind we are living through. These subjects help us to create a society in which we would all wish to live.

Telling our own story

But humanities and social science research is not always valued on the public stage – hence why a discussion of the impact of Brexit on higher education and research is framed too often as a matter for “science”, rather than for all of the disciplines. As I often remark, the problem of the Northern Ireland border will only be solved by an interdisciplinary understanding of the political, economic, historic and legal context.

We need to get better at making the case for our subjects for ourselves. That’s why I am proud to announce today a £10m initiative between the Wolfson Foundation and the British Academy. This is the largest ever single grant awarded in the humanities and social sciences by the Foundation and one that will see the British Academy deliver a transformative programme to support early career researchers, as well as a significant transformation of our London headquarters. This work will give many generations of early career researchers in the humanities and social sciences the tools and the space to tell their own story.

Encouraging a global outlook

As a major research funder, the British Academy is all too aware of the funding challenges humanities and social science researchers face. We also share the sense of joy when a grant catapults a researcher onto a wider stage or enables them to make exciting connections with colleagues around the world.

The British Academy/Wolfson Fellowships will nurture the next generation of research leaders in the humanities and social sciences. The programme will give early career researchers the freedom to focus on outstanding research and to ensure it reaches a global audience.

And it is not all about money. Part of telling our own story is having a dedicated place to share and engage with research. Just as we have centres of scientific excellence, like the Wellcome Trust, the Wellcome Collection and the Francis Crick Institute, so we need an “intellectual hub” for the humanities and social sciences.

This generous donation from the Wolfson Foundation will allow us to create the Gladstone Institute, a new network to enable early career researchers to collaborate, across subjects and institutions, to inform policy and practice beyond the academic world. We will undertake a significant enhancement of the British Academy’s historic home in central London. This will transform existing basement space into one such intellectual hub, with a 200+ seat auditorium, exhibition and networking space, and a state-of-the-art media suite. We want to make our building the go-to place for the humanities and social sciences.

Our building at Carlton House Terrace was once the home of Prime Minister William Gladstone. As a graduate of classics and mathematics, I hope he would share our desire to speak up for the humanities and social sciences, to talk about how they complement rather than compete with STEM and to make research visible to a wider audience.

Changing the landscape

I know that it is not an easy time to be working in HE. Despite the uncertainty and challenges we face, it is no time to rest on our laurels. At the British Academy, we are committed to speaking up for the disciplines we represent. This exciting initiative will allow us to give our subjects a home and to generate confidence in the value of the UK’s outstanding humanities and social sciences.

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