Memorandum submitted by the Arts and Humanities Research Board
1. The Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) was established in October 1998, shortly after the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). Its mission is to support and promote research in the arts and humanities, to improve the breadth and depth of our knowledge and understanding of human culture, both past and present, and thereby to enhance the quality of life and creative output of the nation. It fulfils this mission through three main programmes:
the research programme, with a portfolio of eight new schemes of awards to support research projects undertaken by both individuals and teams of researchers in universities and colleges;
the postgraduate programme, with a portfolio of three schemes of awards to support postgraduate students pursuing programmes of study at both Master's and doctoral level; and
the museums and galleries programme, with two schemes to support the core stewardship activities, as well as specific projects, at university museums and galleries.
2. The AHRB made its first awards in late 1998, and during its first few months it developed in consultation with the arts and humanities research community and other stakeholders a strategy which has enabled it to establish clear priorities for its first five years of existence. The planned developments and targets set out in the first strategic plan have been fulfilled; and the AHRB's annual budget has increased from £25 million to over £70 million. A recent Government review has welcomed the success of the AHRB in establishing its position as the leading provider of competitive grants for research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities; and it has accepted the case for the AHRB to move to the next stage of its development, as a full Arts and Humanities Research Council alongside the other Research Councils sponsored by the Office of Science and Technology.
3. The AHRB welcomes the Committee's short follow-up inquiry into NESTA, and the opportunity to submit evidence. Our comments focus, naturally, on NESTA's activities in support of the arts, as distinct from science and technology.
4. The AHRB responded early in 1999 to the consultation document issued by NESTA on the development of its strategies and activities in the first stages of its existence. Like the Committee in its first report in July 1999, we commented on the need for NESTA to adopt a highly strategic approach to the development of its activities, and to develop a distinctive role that added value to what was and is being done by other bodies. We stressed the importance of this particularly in relation to proposed strands of activity, such as fellowships and education, where other bodies such as the Research Councils, the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, and other educational bodies, already have well-established roles and activities. As the Committee noted, this is of particular importance since the amounts of funding available for allocation by NESTA are modest in relation to its ambitions.
5. In the higher education sector at least, we believe that there is as yet very little understanding of what NESTA's distinctive role is, and of how, if at all, its activities are intended to complement those of other bodies such as the Research Councils and the AHRB. We believe that more could and should be done by NESTA to develop its own understanding of the work and the roles of other bodies, and to consult with the higher education sector, so that it can develop and articulate to those who might seek its support its own distinctive role. It is not clear, for example, whether NESTA sees as one of its roles the development of the nation's capacity and capability in creativity and innovation; still less is it clear how effective NESTA might have been in meeting such an aim.
6. NESTA's subject domain is defined by its title and by the National Lottery Act 1998. But its understanding of what is encompassed by science, technology and the arts, and of the relative priority to be given to different parts of that domain, are not clear. We welcomed in 1999 NESTA's proclaimed aim of working across the boundaries between the scientific, technological and cultural aspects of human activity. But we also commented on the confusing lack of clarity in NESTA's definition of what might be included in those various domains. We believe that this lack of clarity persists, and that this is an important aspect of the confusion among potential clients as to the kinds of activities that NESTA considers eligible for its support. Some clearer specification of the subject domain would therefore be welcome.
7. We note that NESTA's original plan was to make 100 fellowship awards over its first three years, although we are not clear as to the rationale for that target. We are also not clear as to whether there was any target for the distribution of awards across the various parts of the domain of science, technology and the arts, or among various categories of people who might merit support of this kind. Since a number of other bodies, including the Research Councils and the AHRB, the Royal Society, the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust and other charities make fellowship awards, it would seem to be of some importance that the distinctive role of NESTA in making such awards should be clearly defined. It would appear that the majority of awards to date have been made in various areas of the arts, broadly defined; but it is not clear whether this has been intentional or not.
8. Doubtless there has been and will be useful and innovative work coming out of the fellowship awards; but we are not clear as to the monitoring and evaluation strategies and mechanisms that have been put in place to enable NESTA to reach a rigorous assessment of whether the scheme has met the aims and objectives set when it was established. We hope that the results of such an assessment of the scheme as a whole, including the success of the mentoring approach that has been adopted in supporting individual fellows, will be published.
9. We have noted the recent launch of the newly-configured "Dream Time" fellowships. But we find it difficult to discern from the leaflets associated with the launch how these will differ from the existing fellowships scheme, beyond the stated aim of making two awards in each of the areas of science, technology and the arts. It remains unclear what has prompted this new development, and the implied change in the allocation of awards across the different subject areas.
PEER REVIEW AND TRANSPARENCY
10. Both the AHRB and the Committee expressed reservations in 1999 about NESTA's decision not to adopt a process of peer review in the assessment of applications. We believe that the result has been that the both the communities and the individuals that NESTA is intended to support are unclear as to how they might seek support; and that they are also unclear as to the reasons for the decisions that are taken. We believe strongly that competitive peer review brings both rigour and transparency to the selection of applications; and we do not accept the argument that peer review systems cannot be made responsive to novelty, creativity and new talent. We thus retain strong reservations as to whether NESTA has adopted appropriate principles and mechanisms for the assessment of applications.
STAFFING AND ADMINISTRATIVE COSTS
11. We note that during the Committee's hearings in 1999 there was comment about the need for NESTA to recruit a talented staff, and the costs associated with that. This perceived need is associated in particular with the mentoring approach that NESTA has adopted to its award-holders. That is why it is important that there should be rigorous assessment of the value added by this approach.
12. We note also that one of the arguments presented against the adoption of peer review was that it would be costly. In the light of the AHRB's and of NESTA's experiences over the past four years, we believe that argument to be misconceived. The AHRB, which utilises rigorous peer review processes for all applications and awards (including for monitoring and evaluation of awards), has its running costs subject to a cap of 5 per cent of all expenditure. We note from its Annual Report for 2000-01 that NESTA's operating costs represented 13 per cent of its total expenditure; but that when "support costs" directly attributable to grants and awards are added, the ratio rises to 49 per cent.
13. The AHRB expressed in 1999 the hope that it would be able to develop joint activities with NESTA in support of our complementary aims. We have initiated a number of meetings with officers of NESTA on matters of joint interest; and we hope that it may be possible to develop some joint activities in the future.