12: Excellence

I was Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council for 6 years up to December 2013. Like the other research councils, and like most universities, we always said that we funded research that is ‘excellent’ and ‘world class’. However, I was always troubled about how actually we defined and understood ‘excellence’ – both pre- and post-award – and justified our claims. In terms of citations of published papers, we could always say that we were second to the United States and that was some justification. Beyond this, there is a possibility of relying on RAE/REF judgements. But project by project, was it all excellent and world class? How do we recognise it? I argued in one meeting that it was like the judge’s famous remark when required to define pornography: “we can’t define it, but we recognise it when we see it”! There is much truth in this. We recognise the game changers! And in the end I came to the conclusion that we could only work on a case study basis but, working with Council colleagues, we did begin to articulate some of the characteristics we were looking for. For example, excellent research should be some or all of:

  • transformative
  • providing a strategic stimulus for ongoing research
  • maintaining national capabilities in an important area
  • demonstrating (real and creative) interdisciplinarity
  • bringing new fields into existence
  • pioneering new methods and approaches
  • overturning existing entrenched positions.

In terms of ‘impact’, this list looks as though it is biased towards academic disciplinary and interdisciplinary impacts but it can also be interpreted, but not driven by, the national interest in policy and planning.

I tried a very amateur review of what we had funded (substantially) to see if I could recognise projects that satisfied these criteria. Examples of what emerged were:

  • English immigrants, 1350-1550 (York)
  • Portus (a major archaeological reconstruction of a Roman port in Italy, Southampton)
  • Early urbanism in prehistoric Europe (Durham)
  • The evolution of cultural diversity (UCL)
  • The fine rolls of Henry III, 1248-1272 (King’s)
  • The making of Charlemagne’s Europe (King’s)
  • Mechanisms of communication in an ancient empire (UCL)

A typical characteristic was that they were all large and ambitious and in at least some cases, brought new technologies into ancient history. The cultural diversity modellers in UCL for example were using computer models of diffusion. The ‘fine rolls of Henry III’ were the records of ‘fines’ imposed by the king for a variety of events (such as marriage) and the digitisation of these, involving thousands of names, provided opportunities for linking that allowed new histories to be written.

How can I reflect on the search? It could be argued that much of what we funded was not transformative but often deployed amazingly high levels of scholarship – translating ancient languages for example to bring new editions and new works to light – the historical equivalents of what philosophers of science might call ‘normal science’. The search also reveals that what is funded is very fragmented – it doesn’t add up to a ‘big picture’. Of itself, this reveals the nature of the combinatorial problem when selecting research topics: there is too much to choose from! There was not a lot of real interdisciplinarity (qv). Finally, a characteristic of the arts and humanities research field is that it does not define itself in terms of ‘big problems’ – the equivalent of ‘curing cancer’ or understanding ‘dark matter’.

What can we learn from these reflections about urban science? We can identify transformative papers; we can identify a lot of very good normal science. We can also note that what we do is pretty fragmented and there is certainly not enough interdisciplinarity. For example, we need more integration of economics with the rest of urban science! It reveals in passing that we should be more connected to history! But we do have big problems. On the pure research side, we need much more work on comprehensive urban models because that is the only way in which we will fully understand interdependencies and the implications of complexity and nonlinearities. And we also have the medics equivalent of big real world problems to which we can apply our science – and yet we do this very inadequately (cf. real challenges)!

So there are big challenges in our world for researchers and funders, academics and planners and policy developers. Different dimensions of these challenges will be unpicked in other blog pieces. Meanwhile, we should strive for excellence!!

Alan Wilson, May 2015.

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