Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Historians in the United States might well envy the assets with which the United Kingdom’s new Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) began operations in April 2005. Its £83.6 million budget for that year was nearly one-fifth larger than that of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the U.S., whose population was five times as large.1 The AHRC had been explicitly included in the UK’sScience and Innovation Investment Framework 2004–2014 that foresaw UK investment in research rising from 1.9 percent to 2.5 percent of national income over the 10 years and the budget of AHRC’s parent body, the Office of Science and Technology, rising from £2.913 billion in 2005–06 to £3.828 billion in 2007–08. In the United States, history and the other humanities are not part of federal research funding strategy.

The new AHRC was established as fully fledged member of Research Councils UK, within the British Office of Science and Technology.2 All members of RCUK are governed by the famous Haldane principle of noninterference in academic matters. According to RCUK, “This means that Government determines, for example, the sum allocated to each Research Council and may take the final decision about participation in major international collaborations; however Government has no involvement in deciding which people or which particular projects are funded.” By contrast in the United States, the NEH says that “The chairman takes into account the advice provided by the review process and, by law, makes all funding decisions.”

Envy is one thing; emulation may not arise as readily. Our British cousins secured these advantages by joining a national effort whose goals extended well beyond their own disciplines. That effort began in May of 1996 with the creation of a “National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education.” The committee’s 1997 report, Higher Education in a Learning Society, came to be called the Dearing Report after the committee chair, now Lord Dearing. In charting a course for higher education for the next 20 years, this massive study developed what can be called an “intellectual capital” approach. The well-being and especially the prosperity of the “learning society” required increasing numbers of highly educated people. Enrolment caps should be discarded, the report recommended, the quality of teaching and learning should be made more attractive, students should participate in the financing of their increasingly valuable educations, and faculty research should be backed by fuller investment. The recommendation for student participation in financing the expanded system of higher education ultimately led to introducing tuition charges and student loans, U.S. imports that remain highly controversial. Far less controversial among the Dearing Report’s 93 specific recommendations was Recommendation 29: "We recommend to the Government that a new Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) should be established as soon as possible."

Adopting the “intellectual capital” perspective of the Dearing Report required the humanities to brush aside a shibboleth from aristocratic times: a supposed opposition between knowledge that is intrinsically worthwhile and knowledge that is useful. John Laver, a prominent linguist at the University of Edinburgh, was chosen by the British Academy as humanities advisor to the Dearing Committee. His paper, “The Need to Invest in Research in the Humanities and the Arts” challenged the application of that hoary distinction to the humanities. Laver celebrated the “intrinsic benefits” of the humanities: “an enhanced quality of mind, and…the ability…to participate in, and contribute constructively to, a rational and culturally rich society.” But this did not prohibit him from calling fresh attention to the “instrumental” benefits of the humanities. Such benefits pervade virtually every sector of society: the publishing industry, the tourism and leisure industry, diplomacy, international trade, and the major export business of education and training. Many of the “instrumental benefits” he cited had to do with Laver’s own field of language. Localizing software designed in one language into all the languages of Europe required, for example, 50 percent of the overall cost of development. Laver’s paper for the Dearing Committee did note that “while the linkage of science to wealth creation is usually direct, the economic impact of research in the humanities and the arts, while very substantial, is typically more indirect.”

From the “intellectual capital” perspective, Laver could argue that the “marginalization of humanities research is a waste of national talent.” He reported that a research-active member of the humanities staff in a UK university could find project support that averaged less than £950 a year. Laver held that the resulting sole-practitioner “straightjacket of research funding” prevented humanities scholars from benefiting from research-accelerating and cost-effective assistance, and from engaging in adequately supported interdisciplinary collaborative research. As a result, “it is clear that new knowledge in the humanities is being gathered at a much slower rate than in the sciences.” Given the Dearing Committee’s focus on intellectual capital, this languorous pace appeared to be part of a national problem.

While the 1997 Dearing Report on higher education put an Arts and Humanities Research Council on the UK’s national agenda, it was the ensuing eight-year process of building a provisional—and in the end transitional—Arts and Humanities Research Board that cleared a political comfort zone for the idea of an AHRC.3 Historian-administrators in the United States will not be surprised to learn that this evolutionary process was guided by three historians who served in succession as chief executive of the Board. One of them ultimately was to observe “Quite rightly, the AHRB has been expected to prove itself and to establish the case for a fully-fledged research council. This we believe we have achieved.”

In October 1998 Paul Langford, professor of modern history at Oxford University, became the first chair and chief executive of the AHRB. Langford’s research was not irrelevant to the broad themes of the Dearing Report. He was the author of A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727–1783 (1989) andPublic Life and the Propertied Englishman: 1689–1798 (1991). At first the AHRB had no independent legal status; technically it was simply a means of advising its founders—the British Academy, the Higher Education Funding Council of England, and the Department for Education in Northern Ireland—on their funding for arts and humanities research. To provide that advice, the AHRB established standing panels in eight areas: classics, ancient history and archaeology; medieval and modern history; English language and literature; modern languages; visual art and media; librarianship, archives, and information science; music and performing arts; and philosophy, religious studies, and law. After painstaking negotiations the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and the Higher Education Funding Council of Wales decided to join with the original founders as partners in the AHRB. Thus, Langford could observe that, beginning with academic year 1999–2000, the AHRB would serve researchers throughout the United Kingdom, just as did the science and social science research councils. Simultaneously Langford had been working to build up the new organization’s own operational capacity, so that AHRB would be able “to take full responsibility for its own administration.”

After two years, Paul Langford returned to Oxford University to become rector of Lincoln College. He was succeeded as AHRB chief executive by David Eastwood, professor of modern history at Swansea University, whose publications include Governing Rural England: Tradition and Transformation in Local Government 1780–1840 (1994) and Government and Community in the English Provinces 1700–1870 (1997). Eastwood led AHRB through a major transformation. At the beginning of the next fiscal year—on April 2, 2001, to be precise—AHRB became a company limited by guarantee, and soon thereafter also gained legal status as a charity. By fall 2001, AHRB had become able, as Eastwood wrote, “to employ our own staff, distribute our own funds, and operate in ways which still more closely mirror those of the research councils.”

While AHRB was, as Eastwood put it, “achieving independence,” it was also achieving credibility. The UK’s usually unpopular Research Assessment Exercise for 2001 had produced an impressive finding: the pace of grade improvement in the arts and humanities had outstripped that in any other subject domain. Eastwood could fairly call this finding “the notable success of the arts and humanities” and suggest that it might owe something to the establishment of the AHRB.

When David Eastwood became vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia in September 2002, he was succeeded by Geoffrey Crossick, professor of history at the University of Essex, and author of Artisan Elite in Victorian Society: Kentish London 1840–1880 (1978). Crossick served as chief executive until May 2005. By then he could see the fruits of his and his predecessors’ labors. Dearing-inspired legislation had transformed AHRB into the Arts and Humanities Research Council. As noted above, the prospect of charging university tuition fees had made this legislation highly contentious. But the idea of providing more adequate support of humanities and arts research had grown into a constructive influence in the national debate. Crossick observed, “So much controversy has swirled around the higher education bill that it may come as a surprise to discover that at least a part of it has commanded virtually unanimous support.” Indeed, the proposal had moved to the front and center. In the 1997 Dearing Report the recommendation for an Arts and Humanities Research Council was an insignificant 29th among the 93 recommendations. By 2004 the government, aware that it faced serious opposition, introduced the Higher Education Bill by leading with its strongest suit. The opening section of the bill dealt with “research in the arts and humanities.” In the event, the bill ultimately was passed to become the Higher Education Act of 2004.

This success for arts and humanities research cannot be attributed entirely to the deft practical wisdom of historians as a group. Indeed, Philip Esler, a Biblical scholar and lawyer, was chosen to be the next chief executive. More to the point, since the year 2000, the organization had been strengthened by the appointment of a separate non-executive chair. This distinction between a non-executive chair and a chief executive is not unlike the distinction in the United States between the chair of the National Science Board and the director of the National Science Foundation. It had much to do with the increasing and coordinate success of the AHRB in the governmental and academic realms. Brian Follett, the distinguished zoologist, served in this key post of chair until 2007.

Moreover, to join the larger campaign for a “learning society,” proponents of the AHRC had to open up some traditional assumptions about the humanities, even while keeping faith with researchers’ current practice. The premise of that campaign was that the creation and deployment of knowledge was becoming central to society; it was no longer a minority occupation. The proponents agreed that knowledge, certainly knowledge in the humanities, can be valuable for its own sake. But they urged that this assumption was not necessarily the opposite of expecting knowledge to have social and economic benefits. They recognized that research in history, the other humanities, and the arts can certainly be labor intensive, but they showed that it may also be undercapitalized. They even illustrated how history can make a valuable contribution to policy analysis.

The UK’s Council for Science and Technology is charged to provide independent advice to the prime minister on strategic issues having to do with science and technology. In its 2001 Imagination and Understanding: A Report on the Arts and Humanities in Relation to Science and Technology, a distinguished CST team led by historian Emma Rothschild held that “in the circumstances of modern society and the modern global economy, the concept of a distinct frontier between science and the arts and humanities is anachronistic.” They rejected the assumption that such a boundary was necessary or permanent; the notion rather was “a largely European invention, of the mid Victorian period.” Indeed use of the word “science” to denote only “physical and experimental science” had been described in the 1860s as new, and particularly characteristic of “Englishmen.”

Consequently, the CST urged that, in our own time and “in the interest of science and technology,” these “archaic divisions” should be “questioned and reduced.” They inflicted a discontinuity “located in the middle of the disciplines of linguistics, economic history, archaeology, design and information science.” Moreover, since many of the most exciting areas of research lay between and across the boundaries of the traditionally defined disciplines, the organization of research funding should not “discourage imaginative interdisciplinary research.”

This fundamentally historical analysis led fairly directly to the establishment of the Arts and Humanities Research Council among the Research Councils of the United Kingdom. It undergirds the requirement of the AHRC’s founding charter that it “use its best endeavours to identify and pursue opportunities for mutually beneficial joint working with any one or more of the other Research Councils.” It is why planning for the UK’s national research budget, as we have seen, includes history, the other humanities, and the arts.

I studied the brilliant and inventive process of establishing the AHRC, first as a visiting fellow at the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge during the fall term of 2005 and then as a visiting researcher at CRASSH for the entire 2006–07 academic year. A decade and a half of service at the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation added a certain practiced eye to my original training in British history. It was a pleasure to observe historians and other humanities and arts colleagues throughout the UK engaging constructively with their larger world, to share conversations animated by purpose and accomplishment. I do not think that we need to emulate the British campaign to reform higher education; in fact, many features of the UK reform were borrowed from the United States. But in a country whose international relations often seem driven by actionable ignorance, it is not difficult to conceive of other large-scale reforms in which U.S. humanities and arts researchers should be engaged. We might consider whether, as AHRB Chief Executive Geoffrey Crossick, used to urge, it is “better to be in a world where things are tough but matter” than otherwise.

— was a senior official of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1989 to 2003, serving variously as director of research programs, director of education programs, and acting chair of the NEH. From 2003 to 2005, Herbert served as a senior adviser on joint activities to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the NEH, helping create their interagency partnership for “Documenting Endangered Languages.” Earlier he held policy-related posts at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the College Board, as well as an American Council of Education Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education. Herbert holds a PhD in the history of ideas from Brandeis University and has served on the faculties of the Catholic University of America, the University of the District of Columbia, and the University of Maryland. His comprehensive history of the AHRC, Creating the AHRC: An Arts and Humanities Research Council for the United Kingdom in the Twenty-first Century, was published by Oxford University Press in 2008.


1. NEH: $141 million in FY 2006. As with the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States, there are separate bodies in the UK to support creation and performance in the arts. The Arts Council England had a budget of £410 million in 2005.

2. RCUK’s other six members were the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC); the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC); Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC); Medical Research Council (MRC); Natural Environment Research Council (NERC); and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

3. Some public funding for humanities research had actually been channelled though the British Academy since the 1960s.

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