Funding for the Digital Humanities

The Humanities are under threat. In the UK, they are under attack from funding cuts, application of new criteria of relevance and impact. And many are responding with criticism of the relevance of the government’s “impact” agenda, and many voices are raised to reassert the value of the Humanities.

It is clear that the proposals for the Humanities to be evaluated on the basis of its measurable “impact” on a specific set of fashionable social and environmental challenges is not likely to yield quality research. The proposed Research Excellence Framework also seems likely to continue to prioritise the publication of peer-reviewed journal articles in certain journals and the acquisition of funding. This risks further diminishing the value of the tradition vehicle of Humanities knowledge, the scholarly monograph, as well as failing to account for new methods of research, which build up the store of digital research objects and facilitate access to them.

Most funding schemes face closure or significant cuts. In the UK JISC has suspended all current capital calls (http://www.jisc.ac.uk/news/stories/2010/01/funding.aspx),  affecting much proposed and ongoing work in the Humanities involving digitisation, repositories, development of new technologies, etc.. In the USA, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has cancelled the Research into Information Technology programme, which was planning to fund the Project Bamboo programme to build shared technical services for the Arts and Humanities.

This chilly climate for the Humanities arrives at a time when we are the threshold of a new era of research taking advantage of the latest computational tools and environments. For the first time, there are real possibilities for shared access to an enormous amount of the sounds, images, texts and other digital datasets in which our knowledge resides, and which constitute our cultural heritage. Furthermore, we have increasingly unhindered access to other researcher’s outputs in many formats. And many researchers and technologists have seen the potential for building virtual research environments allowing new questions to be asked and investigated. How will the current uncomfortable political and economic climate affect our attempts to build the infrastucture for the new, technology-enabled Humanities?

It’s time to take a step back and look at what we really want to achieve. Recent years have seen relatively generous funding in many areas, and this in turn has led many to adopt agendas oriented towards funding bodies. In the Humanities, the collapse of funding schemes and the irrelevance of the systems of evaluation and rewards, offer us an opportunity to look at our work in an atmosphere unbiased by the race for grant funding. What do we really want to do?

On the one hand, most researchers in the Humanities want to be able to continue their traditional scholarship, unencumbered by the need to publish in ways irrelevant to their research community, and they don’t want to have to have their time taken up by a constant cycle of applying for funding, manage research projects, reporting, etc. On the other hand, many want to have the opportunity to take advantage of the possibilities of the new, digital Humanities.

One current problem is that in order to engage in the digital Humanities, the researcher normally has to apply for grant funding, meaning that they then have to orient the project towards the funding scheme’s foibles and priorities, and then, if successful, start to set up the project, buy computers, hire staff, make decisions about technical issues, set up a website, etc. This “micro-infrastructure”, constantly created anew for each project, to support the technical and administrative aspects of a project can contribute to building expertise and capacity in a research institution, but more often, everything dissipates at the end of the project funding.

Now that the current climate means that trying to comply with the political requirement is futile, and the grant funding opportunities are drying up, we need a new approach. If a coordinated, permanent and sustainable research infrastructure were available, where experts run an enviroment to support researchers in the creation, sharing, linking and preservation of research outputs, then the researcher could be freed from the more mundane technical and administrative work and could concentrate on working on the areas of research where their intellectual effort is required. This “macro-infrastructure” could operate either at local, national level, or within a particular research community, or distributed between them. This will require some initial and ongoing funding, but there are huge potential economies compared to the multiple, fragmented micro-infrastructures.

There is now an urgent need to find a way to fund and sustain this research infrastructure. While there are clearly many challenges, it is becoming increasingly clear that are aleady sufficient initiatives in this area, and that the problems relate to coordination and willingness to share resources.

There is the potential to free the researchers from the distracting activities of funding, setting up and managing project micro-infrastructures, and to free them, to an extent at least, from irrelevant and obstructive political control. Researchers could spend their non-teaching time doing research and writing books, instead of spending their time writing research grant proposals, risk assessments and “impact” statements.

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