Here in Europe, one of the expectations that come with a university position is that one will apply for big-money research grants. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because there genuinely is extra money on offer: if you want to run a complex collaborative project with postdoctoral researchers and extra PhD students, you can. It’s a curse because universities, which are (traditionally) almost all publicly funded and minimally endowed, are increasingly reliant on that extra income to keep afloat. As a result, there is pressure on the professors to bring in research money, sometimes against their own better judgment. At best, it’s a virtuous circle: the academic wants to do the research, and the grant enables it. At worst, the tail of the research grant wags the academic dog: the professor designs the application just to satisfy the university’s demand for income-generation, and ends up either rejected or (worse) running a project ineptly and unhappily.
Overall, though, I do think it is a good thing: it does mean that there are rich opportunities for collaboration between individuals, disciplines and institutions. I like to think of myself, however naively, as one of those classicists who can flourish in the new world order. I like working with other people and other universities, I like the energy, inventiveness and drive of early-career researchers, and I’m not too troubled by the organizational side of things.
I even like ‘public impact’, a much-mocked initiative dear to the UK government’s heart. Impact was dreamed up by the last, Labour government (ousted in 2010). The original design was entirely economic: the idea was that all publicly funded research should be able to show its contribution to the bottom line of UK Inc. The uproar that this crazy proposal provoked led to an expanded definition of impact, including e.g. ‘cultural impact’: now to apply for a grant you simply have to write convincingly about your plans to disseminate your findings outside the narrow confines of academia. This isn’t too hard, and can be quite fun. At the moment I’m running a project on ancient atheism, for which I’ve been making Youtube videos in conjunction with those wonderful people at Classics Confidential (based at the Open University). I’ve learned a lot making these films, not just intellectually, but also presentationally and technically. (If you can bear to watch them, you’ll see that I still have some way to go.)
Impact is not as scary as its reputation would suggest. One very interesting by-product of the original, now-defunct model of economic-only impact, however, was a study commissioned by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News-and-Events/Publications/Documents/Leading-th…) – the main source of research funding for classics and other humanities disciplines in the UK – which made the case that investment in the arts more than pays for itself. The problem, the authors argued, is quite simply that no one has ever bothered to tot up the figures. If you contemplate the export value to a western, Anglophone economy of books, museums, cultural tourism and the humanities wings of universities, you begin to see just how much return nations get on their relatively paltry expenditure. At the time of the report, the AHRC received around £110 million a year; it reckoned that arts and humanities was worth between £2bn and £3.3bn, depending on what you count. The argument (or, rather, uncritical assumption) that humanities subjects do not contribute to the national good was scotched.
Being publicly accountable is not in itself a particular problem. Myself, I relish the opportunity to engage with this kind of public value exercise, because it’s a debate that we, as classicists, can win. We don’t find it particularly difficult to show just how much public excitement the ancient world generates: just look, for example, at the current three-month Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum, which sold out ages ago. The opening night was broadcast live to sell-out crowds in cinemas up and down the country. In the depths of the worst recession in living memory, it’s quite extraordinary how many people are willing to part with hard cash to find out about an ancient town that was pyroclastically carbonized almost 2000 years ago.
Where I do find myself teetering embarrassingly on the edge of fogeydom is in the digital area, which is practically compulsory for research grants these days. It’s not just that I don’t understand the words I find myself writing (after some serious coaching) in the applications, although I’m sure it’s bad for the soul to put one’s name to sentences one can’t defend intellectually. It’s also that I have no real sense of the possibilities in the world of computers these days. Websites and databases are all very well in themselves, but they are cowering in the foothills of possibility. There are some amazingly imaginative projects out there: for example, the Ancient Lives project, using crowd-sourcing technology to publish Oxyrhynchus papyri; or Hestia, which allows users to analyze geospatial relationships in ancient texts, and plot them on maps. Research projects of the future will surely make more and more use of collaboration with digital specialists.
There will always be a place within Classics for traditional scholarship. The white heat generated by the lone scholar facing her book is what powers the discipline. For people who relish the challenge, however, collaborative research projects open up a whole new world of opportunity, and probably offer our best bet for keeping the discipline vibrant and vital for a world that increasingly demands tangible results.