Those of us working in the arts and humanities higher education across the UK have become well-used to seeing our subjects devalued through depressingly regular cuts in provision, staff numbers and resources.
But the experiences of researchers during the pandemic offers convincing evidence of the value of investment in arts and humanities research.
The pandemic and beyond
The Pandemic and Beyond is a virtual hub that, since Spring 2021, has been providing a shared space for knowledge exchange between more than 70 Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded coronavirus (COVID-19) rapid-response projects. Projects grappling with difficult questions about decision-making around hot topics such as vaccines, access to healthcare, and human rights were able to share their results with other teams examining people’s experiences of the coronavirus pandemic, and the maelstrom of confusing and contested information that surrounded us.
The period of lockdowns and social distancing was a time of extraordinary hardship for the vast majority of the population – with sustained impacts on mental health, social structures, cultural activity and the economy. So arts and humanities researchers joined forces with partners in healthcare and in the creative industries, to develop interventions in care homes and with vulnerable adults and children, supported by thorough analysis.
Creativity itself sometimes became a frontline service in the process, with research projects becoming lifelines for creative professionals and their audiences. In an environment depleted of joy and community, engagement with the arts proved to be a source of comfort, social cohesion and individual wellbeing. And arts and humanities research offered avenues to tackle a public health crisis that complement medical approaches with an understanding of social contexts, which have an impact on how people respond to public health messaging and regulations.
The Pandemic and Beyond team surveyed 106 arts and humanities researchers working on rapid-response Covid-19-related projects to find out about their experiences during the pandemic. The responses clearly demonstrate shifts in methods, research designs, and approaches to dissemination which are likely to outlast this crisis.
Building in diversity
Public involvement, and – where applicable – creative and arts-based methods proved valuable in generating nuanced narratives, in capturing complex experiences and in engaging people who might not otherwise have found participation accessible.
However, partners and research participants representing diverse groups felt harder to engage during the crisis. There were pressures on the time and resources needed to build trust, negotiate around structural barriers and gatekeepers and to build in accessibility from the outset.
Existing relationships – and the participation of those with lived experience of issues such as systemic inequality or the demands inherent in working within the health or care workforce – were key to representing diverse groups during a period when time and resources were in short supply.
As one research leader in our survey noted:
you cannot build diversity into a project from scratch under these conditions.
Benefits and challenges
Researchers reported radical shifts in community relationships and in partnerships with industry or with public sector groups and local and national government. They produced policy briefings, responses to calls for evidence, and public-facing reporting, dissemination and engagement events using digital and hybrid formats.
I never before really considered sharing work in progress or preliminary findings
said one research leader.
However, researchers remain under pressure to develop traditional research outputs, and not every arts and humanities project will produce research with direct policy impact.
Researchers across all levels found opportunities to apply and learn new skills, to lead and to take on responsibility. Some reported increased professional recognition. The need to learn together at speed was felt as “a democratising force”. But such benefits will need careful nurturing if they are to be sustained.
There are warnings about the potential for negative impacts on mental health, networking, and staff workload if researchers give in to the temptation to reduce costs in future funding proposals through continued use of remote working. Even when embedded in a team, researchers could feel isolated – and recruitment difficulties meant that permanent staff saw a greatly increased workload.
Researchers were constantly asked to be “flexible”. They often discovered their time had been insufficiently costed in research proposals and those at all levels reported working over and above their contracted hours – with a particular impact on those with caring responsibilities. Exhaustion and accompanying physical and mental ill-health were a simple fact of life during the crisis. One researcher described:
a constant feeling of not having done enough, failing at work and at family life
As might be expected, the research under the Pandemic and Beyond umbrella had a rapid impact, and changed the way the pandemic was handled in real time. Teams researching ethics, law and governance offered analysis of findings tothe House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts review of the government’s response to the pandemic, and to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, among responses to many other other calls for evidence.
Researchers in the creative industries influenced professional practice and informed strategic approaches to recovery in the sector, whereas teams examining communication, information, and the lived experiences of the pandemic, changed attitudes towards communication platforms and practices in journalism, museum work, community groups, and the death care industry. Arts and humanities research influenced public health initiatives and policy, including around housing, care homes ,and transport – and transformed public and institutional attitudes marginalised communities.
Honestly? This is probably the best and most interesting bit of research that I’ve done in my career
one research leader reported.
The Pandemic and Beyond experience points to how indispensable arts and humanities are at a time of crisis. This research could not be further removed from current stereotypes regarding “woke”, “low value degrees” and the marginalisation of arts and humanities in Government thinking.
Instead, it bears witness to the methodological adaptability and the creativity of researchers. Always important, but peculiarly relevant during this time, their flexibility and expert knowledge – whether of law, digital media, linguistics or fashion design – saw arts and humanities researchers well-placed to seek out creative solutions and engender trust and openness in others during uncertain times.
Their work allowed space for diverse human and cultural perspectives, made it possible for individuals and communities to make sense of and come to terms with the impacts of the pandemic. Arts and humanities research sheds light on a moment that has never simply been a public health emergency but has affected the mental health of millions of people, has challenged legislators, forced a re-thinking of society and its economic underpinnings, and highlighted the importance of the arts as a source of connection, joy and hope at the darkest of times.