To mark its 120th anniversary this year, each month the British Academy will look back on a different decade in its history by delving into its extensive archive of historical sources. This retrospective will lead up to the publication of a booklet on the first 120 years of the Academy this summer.
The British Academy’s ability to support the research of individual humanities scholars through ‘small grants’ was boosted during this decade by the receipt of significant additional funding from the University Grants Committee. And more of the Academy’s long-term collaborative research endeavours began to produce their first outputs. These included editions of historical source material (such as the important 17th-century diary of Ralph Josselin), and illustrated catalogues of the sculpture of Roman Britain and of medieval stained glass.
The Academy also sought to extend its disciplinary coverage of the social sciences: the Keynes Lectures in Economics began in 1971; and there was a new lecture series for leading figures in social anthropology.
But the major focus of the decade was the development of its international research links. To its network of international research institutes were added a British Institute of Aghan Studies (in Kabul) and a British Institute in South-East Asia (in Singapore). (Tragically, Neville Williams, the first Secretary of the British Academy to be a full-time salaried employee rather than a Fellow, would die of a heart attack in 1977 on a visit to the British Institute in Eastern Africa, in Nairobi.)
Additional public and private resource (including from the Leverhulme Trust) made it possible for the Academy to support individual British scholars to travel abroad, and foreign scholars to be invited to undertake research in the UK.
But, with the Cold War still in progress, the improving of academic links with countries in East Europe was the most important aspect of the British Academy’s international activities. This was achieved through exchange agreements with the academies of those countries: by the end of the decade, agreements were in place with Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and East Germany. Geoffrey Dickens, the Academy’s Foreign Secretary 1969-79, considered it vital that Eastern bloc academics should not be left isolated from Western thought, and he visited nearly all these countries during his period of office – a level of activity which his Academy obituarist described as ‘on a par with royalty or the Pope’.
At a time when business could only be conducted by letter or telegram, these East-West arrangements were slow. And there would inevitably be problems and difficulties, particularly in the relations with the Soviet Academy of Sciences: it took a while for those on the British side to understand the way Soviet bureaucracy worked. Indeed, at the very end of the decade the exchange agreement with the Soviet Academy was effectively suspended, because Moscow had declined to receive two scholars put forward by the British Academy.
That wasn’t the only disruption to the British Academy’s international activity in 1979. The Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan curtailed the work of the British Institutes in Tehran and Kabul.
But, on a positive note, the British Academy’s first delegation to China in 1979 opened the way for an important exchange agreement to be signed with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The British Academy’s International Engagement
Professor Simon Goldhill, the British Academy’s Foreign Secretary & Vice-President, discusses the important role of the Academy’s International Engagement.
As in the 1970s, the British Academy aims to engage internationally in what can often be a challenging context. Since then, much has changed in how we do so, with the Academy’s support for international research having significantly expanded in the last decade. In addition, the forms of research we support internationally are now far more diverse. The Academy offers a range of individual fellowships and collaborative research projects, across all career stages, with a particular focus on working generationally through capacity building, communities of practice and supporting equitable partnership.
A major aim in providing these opportunities has been to promote the ability of the humanities and social sciences to lead in international debates. In recent years, we have been focused on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU: we have particularly been aiming to ensure continued European research collaboration through EU Framework Programmes for Research & Innovation, as well as addressing broader issues that have arisen within these islands. In the last couple of years, there has, of course, been the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the value of international co-operation in tackling challenges such as vaccine engagement.
International co-operation is key to tackling shared global challenges sustainably and equitably. The British Academy has significantly advanced its support for global challenges research in the last decade, especially supporting collaborative research with partners in the Global South. Building these international communities of research and policy has been a major development of the Academy’s activity, with support for significant research programmes relating to early childhood, urbanisation, heritage, dignity, learning in crises, nature, risk and resilience, and youth amongst others.
A key aspect of this has been developing the British Academy’s ability to engage with major international policy issues through the support and development of excellent researchers here in the UK and internationally. A major example of this was our focus on COP26 hosted in Glasgow in 2021 and our ongoing work on ‘Just Transitions’. Climate change and biodiversity loss are existential challenges of our time. Ensuring just transitions while tackling both is a social and human challenge and the research in our disciplines is essential to shaping a positive future globally.
The British Academy’s approach to international engagement is built on providing significant opportunities for early career researchers (ECRs). Our Writing Workshops provide overseas ECRs with opportunities to network with their UK peers and to receive support and mentoring to develop their careers. Our International Fellowships ensure that ECRs anywhere in the world can come to the UK for up to two years with the aim of fostering long-term international collaborations. And our Knowledge Frontiers Symposia provide unique cross-disciplinary environments for ECRs to forge international partnerships of their own.
The 1970s illustrate the focus of the British Academy on East-West relations. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the feeling of coming full circle is clear. Equally clear is the value of long-term and historical perspectives on issues such as state fragility and experiencing violence. The Academy is also once again focused on supporting researchers at risk, something that had also been a major concern in the 1930s. We continue to live in often turbulent times, experiencing our own version of a divided Europe and a dividing world. Critical thinking, open debate and internationalism are increasingly under attack. It is now more important than ever that the Academy remains a beacon for the ideals which it has staunchly defended for the last 12 decades. Above all, we strive to ensure that the value of the humanities and social sciences is recognised and used to build a better world, and we will continue to support excellent research and research collaboration internationally.
This page was created to mark 12 Decades of the British Academy.