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Letting humanities and social sciences speak to the public

Alun Evans of the British Academy explains why all disciplines need to engage the public.
This article is more than 5 years old

Alun Evans is Chief Executive of the British Academy.

Announcing new analysis of the earning potential of different university courses recently, Sam Gyimah made sure to stress that “higher education is first and foremost education, and not all the benefits of education can or should be captured in future salary.”

Despite this reassuring rhetoric, the government’s review of post-18 education and funding shows that there is much more the sector needs to do to communicate the purpose and benefits of higher education to students, parents. and the wider public – especially in the climate of higher fees.

Value across the spectrum

As the national academy for the humanities and social sciences, we at the British Academy know that we cannot rely on financial measurements alone to demonstrate the importance of our subjects.

On the one hand, we know that employers in fields such as professional services and the creative industries, which underpin our service-led economy, value the skills that arts, humanities, and social sciences graduate acquire. And yet, on the other, these jobs may not always attract the highest salaries five years after graduation.

We also face the challenge of talking about subjects that may be challenging to communicate, especially those without the “visuals” and experiments of their science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) counterparts. How can we celebrate subjects which do not always get a share of the news agenda, but nonetheless offer fascinating insights into what it means to be human? And how can we demonstrate the contribution of the humanities and social sciences to addressing the challenges we face – from an ageing society to climate change –  both in addition to, and alongside, STEM?

Showcasing excellence

Public engagement activities are one way to do this – and something to which researchers in higher education institutions up and down the country already dedicate significant time, energy and passion.

Opportunities to talk to the public about research in the humanities and social sciences – especially more experimental projects – seem fewer and farther between than for STEM. Progress is definitely being made. For example the Being Human festival is building a strong profile. But further opportunities for scholars to talk about their research are surely welcome in these disciplines.

With this in mind, we are pleased to be launching our first ever Summer Showcase this Friday and Saturday, a free public festival showcasing exciting ideas in the humanities and social sciences.

Retro video games, flood management systems, and virtual reality headsets are probably not what spring to mind when you think of the British Academy.

But this weekend, our building in central London will be home to 15 excellent researchers from across the UK, showcasing their research in an unusual and interactive way – from how our ancestors used to sleep, to the history and potential of 3D cinema, and even respiration patterns in Indian music.

Visitors and school groups will have the opportunity to meet the researchers, as part of the process of “demystifying” academia and university study.  

Bringing research to life

Some of the most fascinating research is where science and the arts meet, and two exhibits at the event funded through the APEX award, will demonstrate what can happen when perspectives from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering are combined.

Marilina Cesario and Pedro Lacerda from Queen’s University Belfast have brought together their knowledge of medieval manuscripts and astrophysics respectively to understand better what those in the past knew about space.

Meanwhile, Stuart Murray and Raymond Holt from the University of Leeds explore views of disability design, prostheses and the body, by designing an alternative artificial hand.

Public engagement is a two-way process, and as well as “showing”, our researchers are inviting visitors to quiz and even challenge them on their work. Several exhibitors will be using this feedback to shape their ongoing research. We hope the showcase will also provide the British Academy with food for thought as we address the challenge of communicating research and making the case for the importance of the humanities and social sciences.

As a national academy, our role is to support and advance research for the benefit of everyone – and to do this we must shout about it more loudly and proudly than ever before. Gadgets and gizmos aside, we hope the British Academy Summer Showcase 2018 will be an opportunity to tell the story of the humanities and the social sciences, and of joyous, eclectic, challenging and fascinating research. We hope you can join us.

The British Academy Summer Showcase is free to attend and takes place from 22-23 June at the British Academy in central London.

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