Introducing AHRC’s strategic delivery plan

Explosions of pink and yellow erupt above a statue and crowd in Coventry, celebrating the city’s City of Culture status, in 2021.

We at the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) are delighted to announce our new strategic delivery plan.

This is one of the suite of plans produced subsequent to the government spending review, the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) strategy and UKRI corporate plan.

What is it for and why is it important?

Delivery plans are an opportunity for us to set our direction of travel for the next three years, in a way that we hope will prove helpful for our communities.

They are a chance for us to flag how we intend to work together with the other parts of UKRI – and that is particularly important in the light of the Grant review. This is especially welcome for AHRC as we emphasise the critically important interdisciplinary working which characterises our long-term planning.

The plan and the wider ecosystem

As I mentioned in my introduction, this strategic delivery plan is part of a wider suite of documents that have been published across UKRI. For example, the recent valuable explainer which demystifies how UKRI is funded and allocates funds in the most effective way.

It’s worth reading our delivery plan within the context of these other documents. It is only when read alongside, that one can fully understand the critical issues for arts and humanities – some of which are not always sufficiently visible or fully within our remit.

As I set out in a blog post last year, AHRC is not the only funder of arts and humanities. We operate within a much larger ecosystem. This plan sets out what we as a council will be delivering for the next three years within this context and should not be viewed in isolation.

Our role and impact

A child, close to the camera, beams with enjoyment as he and other children engage in craft activities.

Prototyping creative spaces at Bow Church, East London, to engage local communities on exploring and experiencing possible futures.
Credit: Empowering Design Practices project, Open University.

The majority of the strategic delivery plan focuses on where we can use our resources and our capacity to best support our communities. It looks at how we can attract resources from centrally held UKRI funds to help the sectors we work with to shape the future of arts and humanities.

From supporting people to focusing on places, we will use ideas and innovation to drive impact. And impact is critical, and it is a core part of humanities as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) results have shown and will show again.

Impact can be used instrumentally and unhelpfully by funders. It is interesting that the more impact one has, the more likely one is to be accused of being political or overreaching by one sector or another.

My view, however, is that to study human action and creativity cannot but change the way one lives and engages with the world. Impact comes with the territory.

Discovery and skills

So, our strategic delivery plan sets out where some of our major investments are going to be.

We remain committed to supporting responsive mode funding through our standard grants and doctoral training.

On the former, we will review and revisit the progression and scale of awards and – in the context of other funders – we will look to ensure that the mosaic of opportunity is as rich and legible as possible.

On the latter, again, it is not sufficiently well known that AHRC continues to commit by far the largest proportion of its grant of any council to postgraduate research and postdoctoral support.

We continue to be committed to skills and talent. As we move towards a pooled UKRI commitment, we are thinking carefully about where we can add most value for the arts and humanities research community, for example, in collaborative PhDs, where other funding is unavailable.

Shaping the future

InGAME R&D Centre based in the heart of the Dundee video games cluster.

Credit: Matt Beech Photography

At the heart of this plan our investments are – I believe – lighting the way for the future of arts and humanities in the 21st century, by:

  • embedding ethics into the development of artificial intelligence
  • prioritising the funding of digital humanities, environmental humanities and medical humanities
  • developing our work with the creative industries
  • creating new partnerships around, and a sharp focus on, design.

AHRC will champion and support our disciplines’ place at the heart of a generous understanding of science.

Changing our world

I believe that much of the current disquiet at the precarity of arts and humanities obscures the growth of a powerful new sense of our value and place. Increasingly, science and technology look to our core disciplines for the deep wisdom, long view, and profound imagination. These are vitally necessary in a time of crisis and change.

This quiet revolution will be visible in curriculum change and greater interdisciplinarity. It will show itself in broader and deeper collaborations. It will be evident in team science, where arts and humanities should lead or be profoundly embedded from the outset.

Our core disciplines remain AHRC’s critical concern, though that core will and should change over time. The success of research rooted in practice, of design as a critical methodology and of digital humanities are just a few examples.

And whilst there are many defences that can be mounted of the way that the study of arts and humanities is integral to a rich and fulfilled life, to argue that that is the only justification for their existence in the academy is pessimistic and limited.

Rather, I believe we can claim that research in the arts and humanities create the conditions for a more resilient civic discourse, and a greater capacity to imagine and bring into being a better future.

Transforming tomorrow together

That’s why AHRC has driven its planning through its vision, a bold plan and culminating in a theory of change which we will publish shortly. Vision, delivery and impact are profoundly interconnected, and AHRC is an essential part of UKRI’s strategy to transform tomorrow together.

I very much welcome comments and thoughts on this plan – and I hope that our next iterations will be increasingly co-created with the community. To that end we will be engaging more and more with colleagues through public engagement, reflections on the REF, visits and open fora.

This plan – with the support of our communities – marks an exciting turning point. By researching what it is to be human, and by understanding the past to face the present, together we can build a better future.

Top image:  The Awakening by Gratte Ciel in Broadgate Coventry, part of Coventry City of Culture 2021 to 2022. Credit: Jamie Gray, photograph taken from the AHRC-funded ‘The UK Cities of Culture Project: towards a research-informed approach’.

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