Interview: Arts and Humanities Research Council chief Andrew Thompson on the impact of Brexit and importance of history in policymaking

Written by Geoffrey Lyons on 8 August 2017 in Interview

As an academic specialising in modern empire, Andrew Thompson knows a lot about the trials and tribulations of large organisations. He also runs one. The chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council tells Geoffrey Lyons about the council’s impending transformation and the importance of understanding the past to shape the future

Photo: Paul Heartfield

Few people find the time to write a book. Fewer still can run a research council with a budget exceeding £100m. Professor Andrew Thompson is doing both. The chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council has a contract with Oxford University Press to publish a 180,000-word history of the postwar international humanitarian system. “I won’t write it all while I’m chief exec,” he says with a smile. “But I’ll make some inroads and publish some preparatory articles.”

His demeanour is certainly not that of an overworked academic. He’s confident and direct, adding with a laugh that “you’ll have to check back later” on his book’s progress. This modest addendum is more courteous than genuine – Thompson appears to know exactly what he is doing.


But even the most skilled multi-tasker would have difficulty juggling Thompson’s roles. “The two are in competitive, but hopefully creative, tension with each other,” he tells CSW. “I’ve always felt when I’ve held positions of senior responsibility that my leadership benefits from doing my research and my research benefits from my leadership.” He says the two are “genuinely synergistic,” and that most of the heavy lifting for the book – parsing the big arguments and plodding through archives – is already done. “I’m really in the writing phase now.”

Thompson also thinks it’s a good thing for someone who is running a research council to, well, do research. “I think if you’re an active researcher then that shows empathy and understanding for the research communities that you’re leading and representing and being an advocate of,” he says. “You can’t pursue your research as vigorously as you would like to, but it’s nice to be able to keep it going at some level.”

Pushing the boundaries

The AHRC is one of seven British research councils, which include the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. Its mission – to advance the arts and humanities – is achieved primarily by what Thompson calls the “standard mechanisms” of fellowships and grants. “But we also see ourselves as an organisation that is more proactively influencing and shaping these disciplines,” he says.

One way the AHRC is doing this is by crossing disciplines and bringing arts and humanities into unfamiliar territory. Thompson cites his organisation’s collaboration with the Economic and Social Research Council in calling for research on refugee crises and forced displacement, and its partnering with the Natural Environment Research Council in exploring how developing communities can build environmental resilience. “We’re bringing these disciplines into larger collective enterprises,” he says.

One such collective enterprise is the economy. Thompson reels off some statistics: 80% of the British economy is in services; almost 10% of UK exports are in creative services; one in every 11 people is employed in creative industries. The AHRC is therefore heavily involved in “feeding research” into flagship cultural institutions – such as the Tate, the British Library, the V&A – that in turn drive the heritage and tourist economies. It is also channelling funding to promising digital projects. “We’re helping to train the next generation of creators in digital and IT, whether they be in gaming, film, TV, or music,” he says. “We’re fusing storytelling, narrative, and artistic and creative skills with computing, coding, and digital skills. And it’s that fusion of skills that makes the UK so successful.”

As the country tries to pave a way forward for the post-Brexit economy, Thompson sees an increasingly important role for the council. “It’s our responsibility to try to bring our disciplines into these spaces in meaningful and productive ways,” he says.

And the impact Brexit will have on the arts? “I think it’s too early to say at the moment,” Thompson says. “But I think the fact that we are actively sought after as collaborators and partners in large-scale research endeavours is a good position to start from.” That doesn’t mean there won’t be any fallout, of course. “There are big areas of research that we fund that are inherently collaborative European enterprises,” he says. “We’re considered to be thought leaders in cross-European research programmes through the EU-funded Humanities in the European Research Area, and there’s some uncertainty about whether we will play a similarly formative role in the future.”

Thompson is nonetheless optimistic: “We just need to find a way for our researchers to maintain a leading role in those disciplinary fields, and it’s important that we ensure there is two-way mobility. We want our researchers to be able to go out into Europe in the same way European researchers are able to come to the UK.”

And then there was one

In December 2014, the coalition government published an 80-page policy paper that briefly mentioned its selection of Sir Paul Nurse to lead a review of the seven research councils. The review, published less than a year later, called for the councils to come together under a formal organisation with a single accounting officer and led by a “highly distinguished scientist”.

UK Research and Innovation – as the new body will be called – will be led by the government’s undoubtedly distinguished chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport. Its creation was recently put on the statute book as part of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, and things are proceeding swiftly – Walport has even created a “shadow URKI”, with Thompson sitting on its executive board.

One of Nurse’s justifications for recommending the creation of UKRI was that the councils are “over-stretched,” with too much focus on day-to-day administration and too little strategic thinking. Thompson adopts a “yes and no” expression when reminded of the point. “That’s true, but I think that’s true of any senior leadership role that I’ve had, whether that was as a faculty dean in a university or, now, as chief executive of a research council,” he says.

“Sir Paul’s insight was that it’s important we’re attracting prominent figures from the academic community who can provide intellectual leadership and not be pulled down too much into the day-to-day running of the organisation,” he says. “But equally, as I look outwards to my research and stakeholder communities, I look inwards to my 60 staff in the AHRC. I think there’s a balance to be struck between those two things.”

While the creation of UKRI may introduce more strategic direction to the seven councils, some have worried that it might compromise their individual status. Thompson is quick to repudiate this. “It has been quite clear that this is not a merger,” he says. “All seven councils will retain their distinct identities. They will have a role in developing and delivering strategies for their own research communities and they will continue to be advocates, not just for their own academic disciplines, but for the different stakeholders that are interested in those disciplines.”

So is Thompson definitely a fan? “I think so,” he says. “I think we did very well as a loose agglomeration of seven research councils but that was what it was and it didn’t provide a really strong single voice into government when we came together to tackle large-scale research challenges. I think there are big opportunities in coming together as a more cohesive organisation in terms of thinking through our international strategy.” Thompson again points to the UK’s looming departure from the European Union: “Post-Brexit, I think there will be things that the UKRI is able to do that previous structures couldn’t do,” he says.

While UKRI won’t technically be a merger, there have been repeated calls from some corners of academia for the AHRC to fuse with the Economic and Social Research Council. Thompson is against the idea but finds it intriguing. “You get sick of people raising various issues, but this is one I quite enjoy,” he says. The idea was once a “hardy perennial” that would come back now and then “like a sort of virus”. “But now the barrier to [this merger] is not only dispensing with a council but also of giving it a role or remit that was larger than it was,” he says. Thompson also points out that the business of establishing boundaries between academic disciplines is inherently arbitrary, with no “holy grail”, no “ideal division”. “People realise that there are all sorts of ways you could cut up the disciplines, but the seven ways in which they’re cut up now probably work as well as it’s ever going to work,” he says.

History in the (policy)making

Two years ago, the Institute for Government published What Is the Value of History in Policymaking?, a report based on a series of AHRC seminars and which called for a “rigorous approach to embedding history within the policy process”. Certainly Thompson qua history professor has some skin in this game. Should history play a larger role in policymaking? Should policymakers keep a compendium of failed policies?

“The compendium idea is brilliant,” he says, chuckling briefly before assuming a graver tone. “If you don’t understand the past you really are condemned to repeat its mistakes. We have serial examples of that, sometimes to a depressing extent. History is to society as memory is to an individual – without it, you’re adrift. It’s one answer by which one can maintain institutional memory. The past becomes a repository of experience upon which you can draw,” he says.

“We’re helping to train the next generation of creators in digital and IT, fusing storytelling, narrative, and artistic and creative skills with computing, coding, and digital skills. It’s that fusion of skills that makes the UK so successful”

Thompson points to the Ebola epidemic as a textbook example. “Was the failure of Ebola really the failure to develop a vaccine quick enough? Perhaps not,” he says. “It was a failure to understand that what had happened in the Congo in the 70s was replicating itself in West Africa in 2014.”

He argues that early intervention with “safe and dignified burials” could have substantially reduced Ebola’s spread. “But the only way in which we would have got there was with the sort of knowledge that comes out of local cultures, cultural practices, religious beliefs, and how these things were shaping people’s behaviour,” he says. “So it’s disciplines like anthropology and religious studies and, yes, history that actually provide the possibilities of thinking differently about some of the challenges that societies face.”

As the AHRC enters uncharted territory, the looming uncertainty of Brexit at the forefront of everyone’s minds, Thompson will know better than most how to apply the lessons of the past.

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Geoffrey Lyons
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