Jonathan Wolff on humanities research in the UK

by Chris Bertram on June 7, 2005

Today’s Guardian has “a piece by Jonathan Wolff, political philosopher at UCL”:,9865,1500524,00.html , on the peculiar way in which humanities research is funded in the UK and the distorting effects this may have on the way academics work:

bq. Many of the grants currently awarded require outputs to be specified in advance, and to be submitted for publication soon after the grant ends. There is at least a suspicion that this is having a peculiar effect. Some people, including some leaders in their fields, are simply refusing to jump through these hoops, and are not applying for grants. Others are playing a more subtle game. They are applying for grants for their “second best” projects that they know they will be able to complete and deliver to deadline. At the same time, on the side, they are working on projects they care about much more, but have not included on their funding applications. Why not? Because they do not want to be forced to stand and deliver when the grant is over. The work is too important to them for that. Years more might be needed to sort out the details. Maybe it will never be ready, or at least not in the planned form. Genuinely creative work is risky, and risk means the real possibility of failure. But even when it succeeds it is unpredictable, perhaps even a little chaotic, and often deadlines are deadening. Better not to promise anything.



John Quiggin 06.07.05 at 5:35 am

Accustomed players of the grant funding game have long figured out the optimal strategy here. You start by doing some unfunded research. When it’s nearly done you apply for a grant to produce the output, which you know you can deliver quickly. You use the grant money to keep going while you get the next project to near-complete stage.

Rinse. Lather. Repeat.


otto 06.07.05 at 8:22 am

Yes, that’s why research proposals for post-docs contain exactly the same project as the doctoral thesis. It makes for a very polished grant application…


Robin Green 06.07.05 at 1:45 pm

Ah, I see. That makes a lot more sense!

I always wondered how the grant process works in the field I am studying, computer science, given that you don’t always know what the best solution is going to look like before you do the research.

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