Thursday, June 17, 2010

Value judgements and bottom lines

By Matthew Reisz

British Academy stands up for the humanities' socio-economic impact. Matthew Reisz writes

From prosecuting war criminals to integrating asylum seekers or addressing the "pornification" of society, it is researchers in the social sciences and humanities who often provide the insights we need to get to grips with key national challenges.

This is the message from a report launched on 17 June by the British Academy. Past, Present and Future: The Public Value of Humanities and Social Sciences sets out the return on "the country's investment in these subjects".

Unlike a number of other recent reports, it considers the social sciences and humanities together and attempts to go beyond what Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy, described as the "disturbingly polarized debate in the UK, in which the rival claims of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and non-STEM subjects are treated as necessarily antagonistic".

The report argues that the division is a false dichotomy. While the effective treatment of cancer depends on medical interventions, the report notes "compelling evidence that humanities can ... provide insight into the nature of the environment and communication that advance the healing process".

The social sciences and humanities can play a part by "advancing international understanding", "tackling social issues" and "recognizing cultural value". Many of these goals also generate economic impact, the report argues. The creative industries, which depend on the training and knowledge provided by universities, now employ about 2 million people and form the country's fastest-growing sector, it says. Courses in creative writing have generated many of the prizewinning, best-selling novels at the heart of a publishing industry worth £3 billion a year.

Equally crucial is the academic contribution to "strengthening policymaking", the report says.

Researchers who called attention to the links between "childhood experience of poverty, family disruption and contact with the police" and "devastating consequences" in adulthood helped inspire the Labour government's Sure Start initiative.

Economists underpinned the New Deal programme, moral philosophers helped set policy on reproductive technology and a team is busy assessing the range of risks - from bad British weather to a global pandemic - that may adversely affect the 2012 London Olympics.

Meanwhile, a report by RAND Europe released last week, Assessing the Impact of Arts and Humanities Research at the University of Cambridge, argues that "accurate attribution of research impact is often difficult", with effects "often unplanned".

But it also points to examples where research had impact beyond the academy - from a media-friendly Crusader historian to a journal article on "public nuisance law" that has been much cited in court cases.

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