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All subjects have a role to play in rebuilding post-Covid. Let’s SHAPE the future together.

A new campaign seeks to highlight the vital role of social sciences, humanities and arts in transforming human experience. David Cannadine and Julia Black explain.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Cannadine is President of the British Academy, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University and Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford.

Julia Black is Strategic Director of Innovation and Professor of Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown our already turbulent world into flux. In just six months, the virus has killed hundreds of thousands of people, wreaked havoc on our economies, and transformed social norms around the globe.

Fortunately, many countries now appear to have passed the peak of their outbreaks. But it will be a long time before we fully grasp the true geopolitical, social and financial impact of the pandemic. In the short term alone, we are facing historic job losses, economic hardship, social dislocation and growing concerns over mental health.

The silver lining, if we can call it that, is that these challenges also present an opportunity to attend to those damaged aspects of society that need work: as we try to recover from this extraordinary crisis, we must be sure to “build back better”.

For instance, through its disproportionate impact on BAME communities, the pandemic has highlighted how unequal our society is, and injected some much-needed urgency in discussing how this should be addressed.

Rebuilding will require creativity, hard work, and cross-party (not to mention cross-border) collaboration. It will also depend on the expertise and experience of a broad range of graduates – those in the natural sciences, medicine, engineering and maths together with those in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Whether they are dramatists, lawyers, art historians, psychologists or economists, or employed in the financial sector or the creative industries or universities, people trained and working in the arts, humanities and social sciences are essential contributors to the well-being of any healthy, wealthy and thriving nation. And as we seek to build back better, we need them more than ever.

The SHAPE of things to come

Unlike our colleagues in STEM, we have yet to develop a strong, compelling and memorable narrative about what these subjects are and what they do. That is why, with a range of other organisations, we have begun to think about the notion of SHAPE – Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts for People and the Economy – as a shorthand to unite and celebrate these vital subjects.

Symbolically, it allows us to get across that these are subjects that help us make sense of, communicate and transform the human experience. It is through these disciplines that we can understand ourselves and others, help turn innovation into reality and fine tune our essential abilities to inquire, analyse, create and collaborate – skills crucial to success in the twenty first century.

SHAPE subjects enable us to pioneer effective solutions to the most pressing challenges of the day – whether it’s in recovering from Covid-19, addressing inequalities, making our democracies resilient, or protecting the environment. They also give our lives colour, texture, opinion and perspective.

Practically, SHAPE allows us to talk about our subjects in a pithy way so we can get away from a list and towards a sense of what they do. But we want SHAPE to be more than just a shorthand. We want to take on narratives about ”soft” subjects and show, not simply tell, people about the huge variety and range of our disciplines and the difference they can make to a career and to a society, both alone and alongside STEM.

We hope that many organisations and individuals will begin to use SHAPE – dropping it into communications and conversations. We also want to gather case studies and evidence from our disciplines, and particularly where we work intrinsically with our partners in the sciences, to continue to build the collective narrative for our subjects.

The extraordinary times we’re living through show us just how crucial SHAPE subjects are in keeping life running, care going, the economy working, and people’s spirits lifted. Though the immediate challenges are medical and financial, the insights from all the SHAPE disciplines alongside the natural and life sciences will become increasingly crucial as we navigate out of lockdown and towards a new way of living. Let us shape the future together.

Find out more about the SHAPE campaign.

7 responses to “All subjects have a role to play in rebuilding post-Covid. Let’s SHAPE the future together.

  1. Good arguments though I would still like to see how SHAPE and STEM work together to solve big problems, such as how to design and build a structure in an ethical way that suits diverse needs. The link to SHAPE isn’t working?

  2. Very interesting and important proposal. An inter-disciplinary response to the impact of Covid-19 is critical. The impact will not be uniform across the country and Universities will play a key role in understanding and contributing to recovery in their localities. In this context, I would emphasis the importance of “place” to this agenda.

  3. The role of social science expertise in the field local economic and community development in influencing their university’s responses to the crisis will be critical here. There is abundant evidence that Coruna virus has had a differential impact on not only various age and ethnic groups but also on different localities, particularly those with a long history of economic and related social disadvantage. In many of these places, universities have hitherto acted in dual roles as key anchor and knowledge institutions. Their contributions have been documented in many reports, most recently that of the Civic University Commission.

    During the crisis many universities of their own volition have worked with the NHS, local authorities and the community and voluntary sector with real pace, skill and scale in a way that has reinforced the trust and confidence of local people in their universities. Going forward such areas will face the great challenges in rebuilding their local economies and civil society. Universities can play a key role in this regard.

  4. SHAPE is already dead – it was amazing to see it launch and then die before people had their Sunday lunch. Today (monday 22nd June) it has already disappeared off the agenda.

  5. Thank you for this well-timed initiative. Have you begun building alliances internationally? The humanities crisis is global, as is its opportunity and role in public health and well-being.

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