What do you need to do a piece of research? In the physical and medical sciences young researchers often need to raise money for expensive technical hardware to enable them just to get started. Laboratory research is expensive. In the humanities it is somewhat different. For the last few years I have served on a University of London small research grants awards committee dedicated to postgraduate students and early career researchers called the Central Research Fund. Up until the abolition of this committee I acted as its chair.
The committee was composed of economists, psychologists, geographers, anthropologists, lawyers and specialists in international relations. The relatively small amounts of money awarded – never more than £2,000 – made an enormous difference to the successful applicants, many of whom were self-funding their doctorates. Each proposal would be evaluated carefully and feedback would often be given to weak applications. The academics gave their time voluntarily. The supportive but vigilantly critical assessments embodied a model of the best values in academic peer-review.
Sometimes the committee would look dimly on inflated budgets or cheeky requests. Luxury items would be ruled out as fanciful, expensive moleskin notebooks dismissed in favour of budget reporter notepads; or exception would be taken to their fund being used to acquire the latest ‘high spec’ laptop computer. The committee’s ethos was both generous and frugal. Each year there would be a handful of requests that would make us smile or even laugh out loud, like the young anthropologist who requested financial support to purchase a camel under the travel section of her budget. Or the student of Stalin’s agrarian reforms who requested £130 for half a ton of coal to enable him to heat his room and cook as he travelled through the villages of the former Soviet Union.
The requests would also reveal ethical differences between the academic disciplines represented around the table. It is entirely normal for psychologists to pay informants to participate in their experiments. Others felt that this was questionable ethically. In one case an applicant asked for £56.30 for sweets and gift bags for interviewees as a ‘culturally appropriate’ form of remuneration. The request raised eyebrows, particularly from the lawyers and political scientists and indeed sociologists like myself.
The process could also reveal some of the different virtues held by academic disciplines. For example, anthropologists would sometimes question requests to pay for translators or research assistants. In anthropology, learning the language and customs of a society through intensive fieldwork is a professional virtue to guard against ethnocentrism and intellectual superficiality.
Each meeting provided a rare realization of interdisciplinary judgement. The university decided to abolish the Central Research Fund in 2009. To their minds it was too inefficient and time intensive. This was regardless of the fact that members gave themselves to the task willingly and objected bitterly to it being shut down. Their work made a difference to countless numbers of students, some of whom subsequently ended up serving on the committee as assessors of the next generation of researchers. The time the committee gave helped the students make the best of their efforts and, more than that, to develop intellectually.
Howard Becker has pointed out that humanities research is actually a relatively low cost affair. ‘The materials for recording, storing and analysing interviews and field notes are cheap. Qualitative researchers need money to pay for their time . . .’ It takes time to chase leads, talk to people, write field notes, reflect on what’s been witnessed, check sources and ultimately to write down what we’ve learned. Research also involves others not directly involved giving time to the project. In addition to the CRF expert panelists who lent intelligent eyes and ears to the applications, researchers rely on reviewers, supervisors and friends to point to what they cannot see or hear that might well be right in front of them. You cannot budget for this essential resource but without it the task of scholarship is impossible.