Support of outstanding long-term collaborative projects

by Dr Ken Emond

19 Aug 2015

Throughout more than 20 years that I have been working for the British Academy, I have been directly involved with the programme of Academy Research Projects (ARPs).

While most of the research funding schemes offered by the Academy are aimed at the support of individuals or small group research and partnerships, this scheme has maintained the Academy’s commitment to the support of outstanding long-term collaborative projects. These are intended to provide fundamental information of benefit to many interested academics and other people. The programme covers a very wide range, from major national undertakings, such as the recording of every surviving piece of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland to the UK contribution to wider international projects, such as the recording of all remaining medieval stained glass. Results from the research that is supported under the programme are of interest to a very broad range of people – for example, the Hearth Tax project is widening access to a fascinating and under-used resource for family historians and genealogists. The BBC’s popular family history magazine Who Do You Think You Are? listed the Hearth Tax Online as a “Top Tip”, rating it as the twelfth most important website for 2011.

It is sometimes possible for anyone who is interested in the work of a particular project to get involved. For example, volunteers interested in the writings of the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, recruited through the Transcribe Bentham initiative, had, by mid-October 2014, transcribed over 11,000 manuscripts, of which around 95% were deemed to be of sufficient quality to be uploaded to UCL’s digital repository. The success of this has led the Bentham Project to involvement in the EU-funded tranScriptorium programme, consisting of a consortium aiming to develop software that will read handwritten historical documents.

One of the key features of the Academy Research Projects is the long-term nature of the support that the Academy is able to give. The Medieval Latin Dictionary project begun in 1913 was concluded with the publication of the final part in 2013. The finished dictionary represents the culmination of a century-long enterprise which had over 200 researchers working on it over the decades. The Academy’s support for the Survey of English Place-Names began from the earliest volume produced by the English Place-Name Society in 1924. To date the Survey has produced 90 volumes, and the Society has also published a number of other accessible books on place-names including Diana Whaley’s award-winning A Dictionary of Lake District Place-Names.

Despite the expectation of long-term support, (which is for each project, under the Academy’s present arrangements, subject to review approximately every five years), projects do come to an end, and new projects are added to the programme periodically. Competitions for the adoption of new projects have been held in 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2014.

Most recently the Academy has extended the support offered through this programme to a wider range of projects in the social sciences. Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Survey was given recognition as an Academy Research Project for the first time in 2014. Following the lives of people in 40,000 households across the UK, the study contributes valuable evidence about 21st century life in the UK and how it is changing. British Religion in Numbers provides a database of religious data sources, maps, charts and written guides to understanding how to use and interpret religious statistics. Helping to find answers through the provision of quantitative data, and advice on how to interpret such data, the project is able to provide an informed contribution to public discussion of issues such as how secular Britain is and how religiously diverse, and how polarised religious views actually are.

The Academy’s support of projects within the programme is expressed partly through a very small annual contribution to the core costs of maintaining progress in research, and more significantly through the award of a ‘kitemark of recognition’, which enables the projects to go to other potential funders both in the UK and abroad, and use the endorsement of the UK’s National Academy for Humanities and Social Sciences as a significant supporting element in any bids for funding that they might make. The Academy’s currently committed financial contributions to 53 projects supported through the programme of ARPs amounts to around £535,000. This contribution has enabled those projects to unlock funding of nearly £14 million (not counting the much greater sums committed to the support of Understanding Society through the ESRC), from other sources, including a diverse range of Trusts, Funds, Research Councils and individuals.

A recent success has been the funding won by the University of York and its partners for the Digital Creativity Hub to which the Academy Research Project, the IRIS Lab directed by Dr Emma Marsden, will be contributing. This project, which provides a searchable and freely accessible online resource collection of data for research into how second languages are learned and how they can best be taught, is supported by a large, voluntary international network including established, highly-cited researchers, professional research and teaching bodies, publishers and doctoral students.

I have personally been involved and engaged with most of these projects over a long period of time. Being in the company of experts as they describe the glorious Romanesque sculpture of Durham Cathedral, reading expert views on medieval stained glass in the online journal, Vidimus, visiting Windsor Castle to learn more about the prints and drawings in the Royal Collection that form part of the Catalogue of the Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo, attending performances related to the Records of Early English Drama, and listening to programmes such as the feature-length film, New Secrets of the Terracotta Army, which was broadcast by Channel 4 in late 2013 (subsequently awarded the British Archaeological Award for the Best Public Presentation of Archaeology 2014), all help to deepen an administrator’s knowledge and appreciation of the wide range of work which is supported through the programme.

Dr Ken Emond is the Head of Research Awards at the British Academy. Ken is a graduate of the University of St Andrews with a doctorate in Scottish History, for a thesis on the Minority of King James V, 1513-1528. After working in the Department of Transport, Ken joined the Academy in 1992. As Head of Research Awards since 2008, Ken is responsible for the administration of all of the Academy’s UK grants and fellowship schemes, and he has extensive experience in advising on research funding matters.

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