Science and the humanities: an eternal battle?

Over recent years the debates on higher education funding have addressed not just whether that funding is sufficient, but also increasingly how it should be distributed. In this context the growing volume of science funding, often linked to economic development priorities, has sometimes raised the issue of whether science and engineering have got a better deal than the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. Sometimes this debate addresses issues of how the humanities can also stimulate the economy, and sometimes it has more generally raised the question of whether we are neglecting disciplines that have major pedagogical benefits and which moreover provide important social and cultural supports.

This issue was recently discussed in the Guardian newspaper by the columnist Simon Jenkins. He argues that an attack on the humanities, arts and social sciences set in under Margaret Thatcher, who considered these areas to be socialist breeding grounds, and that since then politicians have maintained a bias towards science funding, with Peter Mandelson in the UK completing this process. Jenkins argues that the universities need to re-assert their autonomy and their support for all disciplines on a fair basis.

It is hard to know what to do with this debate. Clearly universities, at least as a sector, need to maintain a balance between the disciplines, though this may still allow some individual universities to specialise. However, it is not helpful to suggest that there is some sort of academic class war between disciplines; in fact one of the more helpful recent developments has been the growth of interdisciplinary dialogue between the humanities and the sciences and the growth of joint projects between them in both teaching and research. It is also unavoidable that scientists will, in overall money terms, gain more funding than the humanities because their infrastructure and equipment is much more expensive. Nor is it entirely unreasonable to fund research that will secure major economic growth andf benefits.

However, it is also vital the universities develop a clear policy for the development of their disciplines, and that such a policy should leave no doubt about the equal value of the arts, humanities and social sciences, and their claim to be recognised as vital academic areas. It is in nobody’s interests that there should be hostility between different parts of the academy. To avoid this requires a better dialogue and more transparent decision-making.

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3 Comments on “Science and the humanities: an eternal battle?”

  1. cormac Says:

    There is another twist – it is only certain parts of the sciences that get funded, those that seem to offer the promise of technological application. Hence, funding for fundamental science is often overlooked – an idiotic approach for anyone with a knowledge of the history of scientific discovery, but of course who amongst those driving policy have such a knowledge?

  2. Iainmacl Says:

    speaking as an impoverished, ex-cosmologist -hear, hear, cormac!!

  3. John Says:

    There’s no reason why one shouldn’t indulge in both. With our relative wealth, leisure time and ready availibility of information and materials, we can learn anything we want. It all depends on whether you want to study and experiment, or become a passive recipient of popular ‘entertainment’. And having a man out the front telling you things is not the only way to learn something, although a good one may help.

    [By professionalizing knowledge (as a market tries to do) we are inclined to replace proficiency with qualifications, academics with instructors and administrators, and the developing individual with a mere graduate-employee.]

    The Academy

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