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December 24, 2010

What the AHRC settlement means for museums, galleries, archives and libraries

Since the Arts and Humanities Research Council was established, there has been a marked cultural shift within independent research organisations (IROs) such as  museums, galleries, archives and libraries. We now regard our subject experts as potential principal investigators, and our human-resource and accounting systems now match Research Council requirements.

Access to AHRC funding has allowed us to lead on major grants, to develop research partnerships and to take part in capacity-building, training and knowledge transfer. The Collaborative Doctoral Award scheme has effectively supported original research at low cost and has, generally, been regarded as a success.

IRO concerns about both operational and policy developments have usually centred on the funding 'playing-field'. Is it level? Does it not advantage the higher education institutions? Given the preponderance of academics on the panels, are the IROs being judged fairly when under peer-review scrutiny? We listen politely when told that judgements are made on grounds of quality and against clearly stated criteria and we know that we can join the peer-review college, so it is up to us to compete and to stop grumbling—something the academics should also learn to do.

Since AHRC chief executive Rick Rylance refers to an inclusive-sounding "research community" our initial sense is that the settlement does not signal the end of this pattern of steady progress. In fact, the AHRC cannot deliver its key strategic goals without the IROs. What more suitable location for a 'Creative Economy Hub' might there be than one of the national museums and galleries? Topics such as 'Care for the Future', 'Translating Cultures' and 'Connected Communities' already lie close to the heart of our sector. We have an important role to play, if properly resourced to do so.

Up to David Willetts’ announcement, what has caused concern? The Browne Report has transformed the context. Will our present academic contacts be in post in years to come? As they glimpse a future reliant on fees, our HEI colleagues are now subject to the kinds of commercial pressures we are used to. At the same time, they have been reading the rules of the Research Excellence Framework and, stimulated by the success of Neil MacGregor’s radio talks, have woken up to the 'impact potential' of partnerships with IROs. Academics have been forming disorderly queues at the national museum research departments, hoping to boost their REF returns by exploiting the vast knowledge transfer potential of our collections and of our gallery and web audiences too. HEIs should not forget that IROs have much stronger public-engagement strategies than they do and are expert at doing business with external parties. If there is no mutual benefit, we will not play.

The AHRC Delivery Plan refers to the development of 'strong consortia', which has to include properly founded and resourced partnerships between HEIs and IROs. However, there are also worrying references to 'critical mass'. The IROs will be seeking to show the Council that, collectively and singly, our sector includes 'proven centres of excellence' in a wide range of minority subject areas, from arcane languages to specialist collections. Furthermore, the cuts to allocation will mean that specialist schemes aimed at developing the IROs are likely to go. There will also be a decrease in the overall success rates just as the IROs are finding their feet as grant applicants. Finally, the continuing threat of additional cuts to the AHRC administration budget will be more disruptive for small research organisations such as IROs than to the vast polytechnic universities.

It could have been worse, but the IROs are left with a long list of issues that the AHRC will have to work with us to address if the remarkable progress over recent years is not to be lost.

Nigel Llewellyn, head of research at the Tate and a member of the AHRC Advisory Board, is writing here in a personal capacity.

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