To mark its 120th anniversary this year, each month the British Academy looks 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.
An opportunity to showcase the vitality of UK humanities and social sciences at the start of a new millennium was presented early in the decade by the occasion of the British Academy’s centenary in 2002. In addition to a celebratory conference, there were nine Centenary Lectures held in universities across the UK. A series of Centenary Monographs considered the state of different disciplines, either reflecting on developments in scholarship in the 20th century, or looking forward to the challenges of the 21st. And a major 7-year Centenary Research Project was launched, combining approaches from archaeology and psychology to investigate the social and cognitive evolution of humans.
More generally, the British Academy was developing its public engagement activities. A prize was initiated to champion academic books that contributed to the understanding of both specialists and non-specialists. And there were new programmes of public events and publications. For example, in 2004, Margaret Atwood appeared at the Academy ‘in conversation’; and a public debate and follow-up publication discussed the Hutton and Butler reports on the Iraq War.
In a significant sign of change, Baroness Onora O’Neill became the first female President of the British Academy in 2005. During her period of office, the Academy articulated a new mission statement and strategic objectives, and there were structural reforms aimed at better equipping the Academy’s administration to deliver on these priorities.
As part of its refreshed vision, the British Academy more clearly embraced its leadership role in representing the interests of the humanities and social sciences. It increasingly engaged in policy issues related to the general health of the disciplines, producing reports on graduate studies, on the development of ‘e-resources’ for academics, on copyright and intellectual property, on peer review, and on the formal assessment of research at a national level. A particular focus of concern was the state of foreign language learning in the UK; the Academy’s 2009 position paper Language Matters warned that a lack of language skills would damage the UK’s ability to conduct reach of the highest international calibre, and it urged an increase in foreign language teaching in schools and universities – sadly a plea that the Academy has had to repeat regularly since then.
Again as part of this leadership role, the British Academy championed arguments demonstrating the public value of investment in the humanities and social sciences. A 2004 report explained the contribution made by the Academy’s disciplines to all aspects of the nation’s wealth – or ‘that full complement of riches’, to use Adam Smith’s expression – including providing ‘the high level skills required to sustain and enrich an increasingly knowledge-based society and economy’. And the 2008 report Punching our weight expressed the Academy’s ‘serious concerns that policy makers are not realising the full potential of the contributions that humanities and social science research can make to public policy making’.
As evidence of its ambition to engage with public policy issues, in 2009 the Academy convened a forum of senior figures to answer the Queen’s question – if circumstances leading up to the global financial crisis had been so serious, why hadn’t anyone noticed? – and it established a Policy Centre to consider a broad range of public interest matters in the following decade.
The British Academy’s Research and HE Policy work
Professor Simon Swain, the British Academy’s Vice-President for Research and Higher Education Policy, discusses the Academy’s engagement with policy issues relating to the health of its disciplines.
In perhaps surprising parallels with the 2000s, the British Academy again approaches a significant anniversary of its tenure under the leadership of a female President, while also overseeing a review of its strategic objectives. We continue in our leadership role, representing the interests of the humanities and social sciences, and ‘speaking up’ for our disciplines remains a core mission for the Higher Education and Skills team.
The Academy’s leadership in representing what we now call the ‘SHAPE’ disciplines – Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy – has matured since the 2000s. We now operate extensive and collaborative networks within our disciplines, which bring together distinct voices to share information and tackle challenges. Our Strategic Forums for Social Science and for the Humanities, our Learned Societies and Subject Association Network, the Higher Education Development Policy Group, an extensive collection of Languages groups, and, until recently, our Skills Steering Group, are all vehicles which offer valued support and sustain the Academy’s ability to engage in complex debates with the very best evidence.
As in the 2000s, our Fellows and policy team are increasingly engaged in debates around the health and value of the disciplines. The last two decades have seen significant shifts in debates and ideologies relating to higher education: from ambitions for significant increases in student numbers under New Labour, to the concerted focus on quality provision and life-long access under successive Conservative governments. Both have impacted upon the SHAPE disciplines, offering new opportunities and presenting different challenges. This is why now, as in the 2000s, we concern ourselves with the health of our constituent disciplines.
Through our Higher Education policy work, the Academy is proactively equipping policymakers, the UK’s disciplinary communities and the interested in public, with a strong understanding of the shifts, opportunities and challenges faced by our disciplines. Our SHAPE Observatory webpage brings together mapping reports, subject deep dives, and briefings to provide insight into emerging trends.
We use this evidence, not to look at past events and ask what – if anything – was known in advance, but to look forwards and build a vision for the future of SHAPE teaching and research. We are working towards a joined-up, holistic approach which is coherent across the education and research system, and which recognises the societal, cultural and monetary value of SHAPE disciplines to people, the economy and the environment.
This page was created to mark 12 Decades of the British Academy.