UK: Special plea for humanities

Drastic funding cuts to university and research budgets will imperil the massive contribution to the UK's economic, social and cultural life made by the humanities and social sciences, the President of the British Academy, Professor Sir Adam Roberts, warned last week.

Roberts was launching a new booklet Past, Present and Future in the House of Commons, as part of Universities Week. The academy is the country's national institution for the humanities and social sciences.

The booklet identifies some of the major national and international issues, such as climate change, security, economic recovery and cultural heritage, which cannot be addressed without contributions from economists, lawyers, historians, linguists, philosophers, critics, archaeologists, geologists, sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists.

In his introduction Roberts points out that not only does the majority of UK students choose to study arts, humanities and social sciences, but a large and increasing number of international students study these disciplines in Britain.

In 2008-09 a total of 222,000 international students from all over the world were studying these subjects here. The Higher Education Statistics Agency figures suggest a rise of more than 60% since 2001-02; this is notably higher than the equivalent increase in the number of international students coming to the UK to study sciences and other disciplines.

Roberts said there was an "enormous reservoir of public value" which these disciplines generated, and outlined their contribution to Britain's health, wealth and international reputation.

He said the booklet appeared against the background of a disturbingly polarised debate in the UK in which the rival claims of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) and non-Stem subjects were treated as necessarily antagonistic. The enormous achievements of non-Stem disciplines were often overlooked, even when these involved vital interdisciplinary research spanning the natural and social sciences. These misconceptions were potentially very damaging, especially at a time of diminishing resources.

"As modern research has become more and more interdisciplinary, and we move increasingly beyond the sterile and outdated notion of a society of 'two cultures', the mutual dependencies of 'hard' science and the humanities and social sciences have become ever clearer.

"While we all recognise the severity of the UK's economic challenges, it is worrying that research that is so essential to our country's health, wealth and international reputation could be put in jeopardy," said Roberts

He asked how could we tackle terrorism without a deep understanding of the phenomenon - and how terrorist campaigns actually ended? How could we slow climate change if we didn't support work on how people changed their behaviour? How could we make medical and scientific advances without analysing their human and ethical implications?

"The inter-dependencies of science and the humanities and social sciences have never been clearer in the fast-paced, technologically advanced world we now live. It is vital we make sure these disciplines are sustained in order to protect our long-term interests as a nation," said Roberts.