Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)

PROFESSOR PHILIP ESLER

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 have.

  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 involve—especially in the strategic area—working 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 unnatural—actually it is quite useful—to 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 those concerns?

  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 different?

  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 arguable—there is certainly a perception—that 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 perception—we do not have evidence but certainly perceptions are damaging—I 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 dimension—UK activity, with scholars here—we 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 that—which of course works well when one country has a much larger and highly respected peer review process as the US does in relation to us—we 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 there?

  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 arts—the 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 writers—I 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 obvious.

  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 it.

  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 central—indeed more central—in 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 years—with the Arts and Humanities Research Council contributing about £5.5 million of the money—recently 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.


 
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