‘The British Academy sees itself as an antidote to echo chambers’ Communications Director, Liz Hutchinson, on how the BA’s independence informs its mission.
The British Academy is the UK’s national body for the humanities and social sciences. For almost 120 years the Academy has been championing these disciplines and boasts some of their most distinguished scholars as fellows, past and present, including John Maynard Keynes, C.S. Lewis, Mary Beard and Rowan Williams. Recently the BA announced a new strategic plan that places a celebratory communications campaign at its core and in this episode of Research Comms I catch up with Communications Director, Liz Hutchinson, to find out more about their plans.
Why is the British Academy’s role so important in your opinion?
I've been here a couple of years and I came here from a university that specialised in humanities and social sciences, Goldsmiths in London, and being the director of communications there I felt a little bit like there wasn't really a big national body speaking out for the subjects , so on joining the Academy about two years ago I was quite keen that we became a much more vocal advocate for the subjects. I felt like it was something that the community wanted having been in the community, and just that it was the right thing to do. Because we do need the humanities and social sciences just as much as we need science, and although a lot of what's gone on over the last few years has been a necessary rebalancing, as there have been not enough people studying science and talking about science in the past, what we're concerned about is to make sure that it doesn't then become an imbalance and and that's what we're conscious of and that's what we're trying to do through our new strategy and through our communications.
Does the Academy have a neat way of encapsulating what the humanities are?
We've certainly been trying to encapsulate it and interestingly one of the drivers behind the #HowHumanities and #HowSocialSciences campaigns is that that's been about showing, rather than trying to come up with these long explanations. The term humanities is a difficult one, it's probably used less and less which is why people don't really get it but if you think about it, if you deconstruct it and think about the human bit of it it's absolutely obvious, in a way, what it is. It's about the subjects that help us understand who we are, what it means to be human, where we come from, where we're going, where we live, how we live in those spaces, how we interact with each other; so it's all those sorts of subjects and we've got fantastic vice-president of public engagement, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch and he's written a wonderful piece on our website, which I do recommend people have a look at, and he's tried to describe the humanities in the most beautiful way and one of the phrases he uses is “know thyself” and he's talking there about what it means to be human. So, it is a difficult challenge, I'm not sure we'll ever come up with a single sentence for it, and that's why increasingly our communications are going to be about sharing, so making sure that there are these stories of those people out there that are sort of encapsulating the humanities just by being.
In this age of technology where STEM subjects are often perceived to be the most ‘valuable’ what is the role of the humanities and social sciences?
I think in a way this is both the challenge and the opportunity for us because when you talk about issues being technological challenges of course they are technological challenges but even if it's to do with automation they’ll also have a human element to them. So there's plenty of examples of where technologists and Silicon Valley are working alongside philosophers and people who understand ethics. And even seemingly engineering challenges like Crossrail will have archaeologists on site, so what we're trying to do is to show that it's not just sciences and it's not just humanities and social sciences but it's all the subjects together that are going to tackle those big issues and even things like Ebola will have anthropologists sometimes working alongside medics or linguists or people who understand behaviour and human interaction who will really be fundamental to the mission. So as I say it's a challenge but it's also an opportunity and so what we've been trying to do is work with science and scientists to tell that story and I've been really pleased and enthused by the response from scientists to our campaign, so a lot of the voices on the day when we launched were from the Royal Society, they were from scientists who were saying we couldn't do what we do unless we have these perspectives from these equally valuable uniquely valued colleagues.
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Peter Barker is the Director of Orinoco Communications, which he started in 2016, having spent over ten years working in broadcast television as a documentary producer/director.
He specialises in the digital communication of research in science, the social sciences, humanities and arts.