Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
28 FEBRUARY 2007
Q1 Chairman: Good morning and welcome
to this introductory hearing with Professor Philip Esler, the
Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. We
apologise to you somewhat, Professor, for the fact that it has
taken us 18 months to actually formally have you before the Committee
in terms of finding out what your ideas and thoughts are in terms
of the future of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I do
apologise for that. You have had a varied background before you
actually came into this role; how well do you think that actually
prepared you for what you have found since you arrived?
Professor Esler: I guess the most
relevant parts of my past have been as a lawyer in commercial
litigation either as a solicitor or a barrister in Sydney working
partly in intellectual property and then more recently being the
St Andrews' Vice-Principal for Research beginning in 1999 when
we did introduce a strong commercialisation dimension to the University's
activity. Then I had the time working with Scottish Enterprise
Fife, the local development agency. I guess those are the three
things that are most relevant in terms of the knowledge transfer
activity and I suppose just being an academic with some profile
in my own field is important to win the confidence of one's colleagues.
I suppose they are the main things.
Q2 Chairman: Why did you particularly
want to do the job?
Professor Esler: I have always
had a strong interest in the possibilities of arts and humanities
research both for its intrinsic value and also for the way in
which it could enrich the community in areas beyond academia.
The thought of having this kind of position where I would be able
to influence both of those areas was very exciting so I applied
for the job a couple of years ago and here I am.
Q3 Chairman: Obviously you were an
outsider to the Research Council and looking at it as an outsider
coming in how effective do you think it is as an organisation?
It was not in being for very long before it became the Arts and
Humanities Research Council. Was it effective? Is it fit for purpose,
to use that hackneyed phrase?
Professor Esler: I think it is
very effective both in terms of the actuality of cross-council
research collaboration which is now very, very evident and also
because the meetings that we have at the various levels of staff
across the organisation are very profitable in terms of sharing
best practice, being alert to new developments and just working
together. We have recently refreshed our arrangements for applications
that cross the boundaries of two or more councils and we are very
enthusiastic to encourage applications that do that. From my point
of view I was expecting the boundary between the Arts and Humanities
Research Council and the Economics and Social Research Council
to be particularly vibrant (that is a boundary close to my heart
because that is where I spent my academic career working). But
what has really taken me by surprise and delighted me is the extent
of interaction with ourselves and the Engineering and Physical
Sciences Research Council preceding my arrival in areas of design
but now going much further, especially in the whole area of the
evolving digital media platforms and creative content (animation,
design, narrative, emotional depth) which is important in a whole
range of areas, computer games being the most obvious, but in
other areas such as computerised modelling for scenarios of disasters
and catastrophes. There is a whole interface of activity between
ourselves and EPSRC that I was not expecting but which I really
find very exciting. Now, of course, we are working together in
the heritage area so that is really a very great experience to
Q4 Chairman: Where do you think the
organisation could be improved? What is your assessment of where
are the weaknesses or the challenges?
Professor Esler: I think the challenge
for the organisation is to move beyond where it was as a board.
The three big areas are certainly knowledge transfer (probably
more usefully described as knowledge exchange, but there you are),
strategic programmes which address issues of national and international
concern and the internationalisation of our activities so that
our researchers can work more easily and more commonly with researchers
abroad. I think they are the three big areas that we really could
not do or did not do as a board but which we are increasingly
doing as a council. Of course those three areas largely involveespecially
in the strategic areaworking with other councils.
Q5 Chairman: Do you feel that the
relationships between the other councils are hindered by the fact
that there is not a single research council or do you think that
it is a stronger organisation as a result of the sum of its parts?
Professor Esler: I suppose you
will look at me and say, "You are the Chief Executive of
one of them so have a vested interest in the current system",
but in fact we are moving at present to set up a shared services
centre which will do in common the service delivery aspects of
our activities. I think that will then reveal very clearly that
what remains are divisions of the councils which do quite usefully
and accurately map distinct academic communities who have their
own interests, their own particular problems to address and their
own ways of engaging with the wider community. I think, because
of that nationally differentiated research landscape, it is not
unnaturalactually it is quite usefulto have a separate
array of councils.
Q6 Chairman: When we did our Knowledge
Transfer Report one of the concerns we had was that there were
still a silo mentality in many ways towards research and in fact
an awful lot of interdisciplinary research was now coming along,
and whether in fact the councils had the mechanisms to be able
to take full advantage of what others were doing. Did you share
Professor Esler: I think that
before we recently revised our cross-boundary application processes
that was a charge that could reasonably be made against the councils.
Yet I genuinely think that now, given that it is advantageous
to have councils that are adapted to particular academic communities,
we are actively encouraging and providing structures within which
cross-council activity can occur. I genuinely do not think that
that is a big issue. In the area of knowledge transfer of course
we have undertaken a tremendous process since about September
last year to rationalise and co-ordinate our activity. I guess
you will be asking about that later on but if you want me to deal
with it now I can.
Q7 Chairman: We will come on to that,
but finally in my section in three years' time what will be different
about the Arts and Humanities Research Council? What will we see
Professor Esler: About the Council
or the way it works?
Q8 Chairman: The way it works.
Professor Esler: There are two
things which I should mention. One is that we are working with
the other councils to establish a shared services centre. That
will mean that some of the functions that we presently fulfil
in Bristol will be operating as a shared services centre in Swindon,
but we are also looking at our own internal structures. Indeed
this year, as something of a revolution in the way we operate,
we are going to examine our decision-making structures and that
will include our panels. At present we operate with a system of
eight panels in both the research and the postgraduate areas and
it is arguablethere is certainly a perceptionthat
having eight panels does produce the kind of silo thinking that
you were referring to earlier. Although I cannot entirely foresee
what will happen, I would not be surprised if the group recommended
to council that we move away from a panel based approach to the
assessment of research and postgraduate applications to a more
holistic, integrated approach which I think would then completely
eliminate the charges that we do occasionally get that we are
not sympathetic enough to things like area studies or applications
that might cross, say, English and history or classics. Since
there is that perceptionwe do not have evidence but certainly
perceptions are damagingI think it is likely that we will
move in that direction.
Q9 Linda Gilroy: What have been the
benefits for the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the change
Research Council status and what are the drawbacks?
Professor Esler: From my point
of view and I think the general perception and belief, being brought
into a group of other councils that are working in so many exciting
research areas provides the possibility for interaction which
previously did not exist. That is the first thing and there are
a range of activities that are evolving which demonstrate that
new integration. Secondly, we are just part of a larger budget.
Previously we were funded by the funding councils in the UK at
a lower level than we are now and although we had more independence
in our operations it was part of a much smaller budget. We were
not part of a budget to which the Government had committed money
in a 10 year programme as it has in relation to science. I think
they are the two big advantages.
Q10 Linda Gilroy: What about international
research priorities? To what extent are the arts and humanities
now more fully engaged there?
Professor Esler: We have been
intensively active in the international arena for the last 18
months or so. Our policy has been to seek out research collaborations
which are administratively straightforward for our academics to
engage in, which means especially that they do not involve two
sets of peer review processes here and in some other country.
We do not want that which is called "double-jeopardy".
We have actually pioneered something entirely new here. We began
with the National Science Foundation in the United States which
has a number of subjects that we also fund such as the archaeology
of America, social anthropology, parts of geography and linguistics
(including endangered languages). We put to them that if there
is an application in those areas that comes to you from US scholars
with a UK dimensionUK activity, with scholars herewe
will be happy if their peer review process decides on this application,
so long as we have a representative on the panel, and then they
will fund their part and we will fund our part. In the US they
are not permitted to fund research by non-US people. They agreed
to that, which was entirely new, and we have a signed agreement
and we are now actively seeking our scholars to engage with the
NSF in that area. Since we did thatwhich of course works
well when one country has a much larger and highly respected peer
review process as the US does in relation to uswe have
been approached by countries that see our peer review process
as excellent and we have now entered into agreements in similar
terms (although the other way round if you like) with South Korea
and Taiwan and we are in negotiations with a number of other countries.
The advantages of this process are not just that international
collaboration occurs but that the colleagues who go off to the
other countries to take part in the panels also gain valuable
experience, make connections and so forth. We have discovered,
for example, that there is magnificent research going on in South
Korea and Taiwan in a number of areas that UK scholars are interested
in, and indeed there are liaisons already occurring, but there
has not been a formal structure to facilitate this collaboration
and now there is. In terms of the South Asian countries we are
initially working on networks because we see networks which could
involve, if you like, four workshops over a two year period, as
a way of building capacity, bringing people together around an
intellectually exciting area, getting them to know one another.
Collaborations will not work if people do not like one another,
so networks are testing grounds for what could become much bigger
projects a year or two later. In addition, of course, we are very
active in Europe and the main area of our involvement there is
Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA). This is a consortium
of 15 countries which is moving towards having a funded project
around two themes beginning in 2009. I will be chairing that consortium
from March of this year. That is very active.
Q11 Linda Gilroy: What are the themes
Professor Esler: The two themes
are Cultural Dynamics which is essentially the way in which cultures
from the past impact upon present culture and drive future development.
That theme is being co-ordinated by the excellent Dutch research
organisation, the NWO. The other one is Humanities as a Driver
of Innovation. We, the AHRC, will be co-ordinating that theme
and we will be having a conference or a seminar on that later
on this year to begin formulating the process. We are also working
closely with the European Research Council. Earlier this year,
when I met their Deputy Chairman here in London at Imperial, she
expressed some concern to me that they were going to have as their
first project this year a range of applications for early career
researchers; this year would be solely devoted to researchers
who were 10 years away from their doctoral submission. There were
300 million euros available and she was worried that there would
not be enough take up around Europe. We responded to that by having
a `New Generation' event in London a couple of months ago in which
we had a hundred of our brightest scholars in the UK within 10
years of doctoral submission. Of course we told them about AHRC
but we also brought an expert from UKRO (the UK Research Office)
in Brussels, a British person, who told them the specifics of
how they might go about making a successful application to the
ERC. We are very engaged with Europe as well.
Q12 Linda Gilroy: In your response
to the first question you gave us some insight into the challenges
you face in working with other Research Councils and some of the
interesting cross-overs, but given the focus on arts rather than
sciences are there specific challenges? Is there anything you
want to tell us about the problems?
Professor Esler: Are there problems
with dealing with the other sciences?
Q13 Linda Gilroy: Yes.
Professor Esler: When I go around
to the institutions and make my presentations to the staff I show
them, among other things, the photo that the Huygens probe took
as it descended into the Titan atmosphere some two years ago.
When they are looking puzzled at why I am showing them this, I
refer them to Keats' poem "On First Looking Into Chapman's
Homer" where Keats, in explaining the excitement of discovering
this translation of Homer, makes two comparisons. One is to a
planet watcher who sees a new planet which of course is the discovery
of Uranus by Herschel in Bath in 1781; the other is to the discovery
of the Pacific by the first European to see it, Cortez. When they
still wonder I say, "If Keats could get excited by the integration
of arts and humanities discoveries and learning and scientific
discoveries and exploration, so can we". I have not heard
any dissent. Because there are now so many areas, even areas like
science and the artsthe arts of therapy, medicine and the
arts, the collaborations between our social scientists and arts
and humanities people, the collaborations between digital media
experts and creative writersI do not get a sense of negativity.
All I get is a sense that we have entered a bright new world and,
frankly, people are up for it.
Q14 Linda Gilroy: Has Research Councils
UK helped or hindered your collaboration with other councils?
Professor Esler: They are there
to enable the collaboration and they have an excellent staff in
the secretariat; there are some 20 staff working in the secretariat.
All I have had, especially in my more recent role as champion
for knowledge transfer and economic impact, are tremendous support
and very efficient assistance. I honestly do not have a problem
with RCUK; I think it is a good organisation. I think perhaps
a year or two ago, as you were suggesting, there probably was
not enough co-ordination in significant areas, both in terms of
cross-council applications and knowledge transfer but I really
feel we have addressed that and so to me the problems are not
Q15 Linda Gilroy: Do you see a forward
looking role for them as well? If they have achieved that and
that needed doing and it is happening better now, do you think
that is a role for the future that they need to do or is there
something else they need to do?
Professor Esler: I would be disappointed,
for example in relation to both cross-council research and knowledge
transfer, if at the very moment that we are setting up platforms
and beginning processes which will have very crisp outcomes, that
we would be frustrated in that progress. I think we are just starting
something and certainly I would look forward to being there for
the next few years as it runs. Right now I would just like it
to run along as it is.
Q16 Chairman: In terms of European
collaboration, where we are actually bidding for funds from Europe
for research programmes which you are jointly funding, is the
European money regarded still as additionality or in fact do we
have to discount that in terms of what the UK are giving as part
of the UK's grant?
Professor Esler: It is probably
the case that the funding from European projects will not be as
generous as full economic costing. I think it is really a decision
for individual universities as to whether they want to go for
that funding just, indeed, as it is for them to decide whether
they want to go for charities in addition to Research Council
funding. My impression is that they are enthusiastic to do that
and especially this year when there are 300 million euros available
for young researchers and when the UK has such a strong record
of successful applications that it would be unfortunate if universities
did not rise to that challenge.
Q17 Chairman: There was a system
which the chancellor was going to change whereby if, in fact,
you received European funding for a programme then that was removed
as far as the UK grant.
Professor Esler: I am not aware
of that. I have not heard of it and I do not like the sound of
Q18 Chairman: Perhaps we can investigate
that just to see if it affects the arts and humanities in the
same way it does some of the sciences. The last time we met was
at a seminar which was looking at arts and humanities and indeed
the social sciences and terrorism. Was that a one-off event or
in fact is that something which you are actively pursuing through
the Research Council?
Professor Esler: No, it was not
a one-off event. Issues of that kind come up both in our existing
strategic programme on Diasporas, Migration and Identity, but
they are also very centralindeed more centralin
our new strategic programme which we have with the ESRC which
is called Religion and Society. That programme, to which we are
jointly contributing about £8.5 million over five yearswith
the Arts and Humanities Research Council contributing about £5.5
million of the moneyrecently had its first round of outline
applications and attracted 96. When you read through the issues
that are covered, it demonstrates a very impressive engagement
by colleagues in both the arts and humanities and the social sciences
in relation to many issues that are relevant to security challenges.
We were delighted to see that. Identity and culture is a central
part of our CSR submission as well, so we are hoping to continue
in that area.
Q19 Chairman: You had not mentioned
that earlier and it was important.
Professor Esler: Certainly we
see it as very important to encourage our colleagues to engage
in areas of public policy importance. If you like, moving beyond
academia, it could either have purely economic dimensions and
it could also involve public policy that leads to distinct changes
which affect the lives of citizens, or it could be in quality
of life issues, in culture which relates to the heritage industry
and so forth. We are trying to get them active in all areas.