Humanities and science: an unequal competition?

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 discussed last year in the Observer newspaper by the writer Alex Preston. He argued that an attack on the humanities set in under Margaret Thatcher, who attempted to centralise control over universities:

‘She asserted more government power over the universities in an attempt to strong-arm them into complying with her vision of an entrepreneurial, vocational education system.’

According to Preston this has led today to a culture of higher education bureaucracy that spends (wastes?) money on ‘bureaucrats hired to manage the transformation of universities from centres of learning to profit centres.’ In this world the humanities are an immediate target because they are ‘less readily yoked to the needs of the corporate world.’

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. In the meantime one of the welcome 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.

So is there really a war against the humanities? It is probably 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 and benefits. But it is also vital that the university sector overall demonstrates – and is encouraged and funded to demonstrate – the value of the humanities, arts and social sciences. For this to be done satisfactorily, the value and ethos of higher education as a whole needs a more principled expression than it now often gets. That may be the first task to be addressed. And if I may be permitted a bit of self-indulgence, there are worse places to start the reflection than in the introduction to the report of the 2012 review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland (which I chaired).

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24 Comments on “Humanities and science: an unequal competition?”

  1. Perhaps the debate referred to (focusing on concerns about unequal funding of sciences and humanities) is really the wrong debate. There is an increasingly strong argument that we are in the middle of a paradigm shift that would make this debate less relevant. The almost ubiquitous concern with ‘interdisciplinarity’ on the one hand and ‘co-production’ on the other, although not always understood to be two facets of a wider shift, suggests that which discipline or cluster of disciplines gets the most funding may be irrelevant. Of course large sums of funding can act as a counter to both interdisciplinarity and co-production, reinforcing a discipline or cluster of disciplines’ autonomy.
    I put interdisciplinarity and co-production in inverted commas because these are short hand ways of highlighting clusters of ideas which exist in different configurations in different contexts. Whether we are talking about disciplinarity, multi-disciplinarity, inter-disciplinarity or trans-disciplinarity (and Basarab Nicolescu provides a useful way of seeing these as a sequence of accumulating benefits, rather than as a series of alternatives see ), the point is that the complexity of challenges we face socially and environmentally cannot be addressed by any one discipline in isolation. Morever leading research programmes (eg Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) and its successor programmes) have instigated approaches that ensure that no one discipline, however powerful, has autonomy. All projects funded through RELU had to have multiple disciplines involved and also had to have stakeholder involvement.
    If we turn to co-production (whether that is co-creation in art and design, participation, collaboration or stakeholder involvement), whether it is mandated through the Aarhus Convention, or an essential form of practice such as in many social practices in art and design, or even simply our experience of the digital environment (web2.0) it is changing the way we work.
    The Brighton Fuse Report ( highlights the higher growth rate of ‘fused’ enterprises within the creative and digital businesses in the Brighton area.
    “The research identifies a new category of high growth firms within this cluster, that are ‘fusing’ and ‘superfusing’ to create an extraordinary competitive edge. Fused businesses are those that combine creative art and design skills with technology expertise. Among Brighton’s cluster, two thirds are considered fused and believe in the competitive advantage of combining diverse skills and knowledge.”
    The Executive Summary goes on to say,
    “The findings emphasise the importance of the arts and humanities to a sector that has often seen them as ‘soft’ subjects. By integrating these creative arts with science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) skills, businesses are pursuing a powerful growth agenda.”
    The Brighton Fuse Report does not address co-production. For that we might turn to Grant Kester, art historian and theorist of collaboration in contemporary art. He argues ( ), speaking about collaborative arts practices,
    “I do think there is a paradigm shift occurring, specifically in the way in which we understand aesthetic autonomy. This isn’t simply a shift in the content of work, but in the underlying formal organization of artistic production. … These changes aren’t occurring simply because artists are asking different questions about their own creative practice. Rather, they reflect a broader, trans-disciplinary interest in collective knowledge production.”
    The importance of this shift in the arts is the extent to which the voice of the individual is paramount. If shared authorship is significantly changing the arts, what implications does that have for other disciplines and practices? Kester is particularly focused on the role of the critical and the ability of the arts and humanities to reveal and highlight that which is hidden by social and economic hegemonies. In the context of any attempt to maintain a distinctly Scottish democratic intellect, this is of course vital.
    The sciences have benefited from powerful claims of explanatory effectiveness, but the shifts I’ve highlighted ask us to rethink what we mean by effectiveness. They don’t diminish the disciplinary importance of the sciences, but rather challenge the forms of isolation that have developed.
    Chris Fremantle, Senior Research Fellow, Gray’s School of Art

  2. Cormac Says:

    One point rarely made is that many areas within science and engineering are also overlooked under the present system. Research funding is typically targeted only at those areas of science that are predicted to have useful technological yields in the short term, leaving out great swathes of science, from astrophysics to cosmology, from particle physics to mathematics.So, by area, the funding situation in many areas of science is not that different to the situation in the humanities.

    Overall, the complete lack of funding for any research not tied to industry is an inevitable consequence of outsourcing. Instead of granting each third level institution funding to spend on research as the colleges see fit (the old system in Scandinavia), funding is allocated at a national (and international) level on a project basis. The problem with this system is that it attempts to second guess which areas are of strategic importance to the nation….anathema to any comprehensive third level research program. It also means that researchers of average ability can be funded over researchers of far greater ability

  3. Vince Says:

    I read on the Visual Artists site that UCD is looking to install an artist in residence with the science school/faculty/whatevertheyarecallingitonfriday. The successful person will collaborate with and open their thought process and workflow to the higher degree candidates and faculty. What I’m less clear is just what good devolves onto the Artist whom it would seem is required to undo 20 years of training in answering questions.

  4. James Fryar Says:

    If you look at STEM fields over the past decade or so, you’ll find that we’ve created entirely new degrees. We’ve modified course structures and continually introduced new modules. We’ve formed multi-disciplinary research centres and hubs, we’ve partnered with the private sector, we’ve tried to produce spin out companies. We recognised the value of the humanities subjects, and made major interventions in terms of how we teach science, how we assess students, how we contextualise technology, the implications it may have on personal liberties, on privacy, and so forth. We formed partnerships to help evaluate the ethics of everything from animal experiments to personal medical devices. We introduced courses for our science students to help them understand different sources of information, the relative value of that information, how it is disseminated, and the ways in which it is interpreted.

    Although the humanities vs science funding debate is often raised, there is a tendency to ignore the fact that what actually happened was not simply a preference in funding for STEM, but an active process of adaptation and realignment by STEM fields to ensure a large slice of that funding.

    I think it is fair to say (and some will disagree but so be it) that, in comparison, the evolutionary rate of humanities is positively glacial. Whenever I read an article by a humanities faculty member, it sounds like a plea to remember that humanities is important too. Which it is. But there also seems to be a deep rooted sense that humanities can only function if it maintains ‘business as usual’. When you have faculty members taking on students to do PhDs in the cultural impact of the Simpsons, you have to wonder whether some academics are positively reveling in maintaining ‘business as usual’.

    The humanities and science were symbiotic for many centuries. The post-modernists then turned and built up a framework in which science was diminished – it was not the only, or even best, method of gaining understanding. Now, having detached themselves from science, they’re stuck in the rut of either having to adapt and abandon those post-modernist concepts, or try to continue business as usual in a post-post-modernist world.

    What I’m suggesting is that humanities is reaping what it sowed and the slow pace of adaptation or even the refusal to adapt is, in my opinion, the real issue in terms of their funding crisis.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      I couldn’t but smile at this rather fancyful historical reconstruction of events, So, all was well with humanities and science symbiotically together in some arcadia of the past till the wicjed postmodernists came along! Pity such a reconstruction omits to consider a whole century, the 19th one, where no postmodernist was in sight and yet the concept of academic ‘discipline’ emerged together with that of the Humboltian modern university. Furthermore, how did they dare (the wicked postmodernists) to contest the primacy of scientific *truth*, they deserve to burn in intellectual hell!

      • James Fryar Says:

        Lol! Ok, fair enough, maybe I stretched that argument just a bit …

        Mind you, I’m not suggesting that the post-modernists burn in intellectual hell. I’m suggesting that what they did was manage to convince the public that what they were doing wasn’t worth funding.

        Now that there is a funding crisis in the humanities, maybe they should think about embracing scientism again? 😉

        • Anna Notaro Says:

          The main problem with your argument is that, for some odd reason, you identify the humanities with postmodernism as if the two were interchangeable while postmodernism is only a late 20th century movement.

  5. cormac Says:

    Agreed Anna, but I’m not sure James is entirely wrong. After all, it’s interesting that the imbalance in funding between the sciences and the humanities began to become noticeable from the 1960s onwards. Much of this can be attributed to the space race and other factors …but it’s interesting that postmodernism began to have an influence on fields such as the history and philosophy of science around this time or soon afterwards. It can hardly have helped the humanities that constructivists such as Feyerabend and Latour were claiming that all knowledge is constructed at the same time that the semiconductor chip and the laser were making great technological leaps forward, at least from the perspective of the money men…,

    • I’m really curious about this discussion and I’ve been listening carefully trying to work out if its serious but I am a bit gobsmacked at, ‘It can hardly have helped the humanities that constructivists such as Feyerabend and Latour were claiming that all knowledge is constructed at the same time that the semiconductor chip and the laser were making great technological leaps forward, at least from the perspective of the money men…,”
      So you have heroes in science making life better by inventing techologies and the you have those troublesome people in the humanities who ask tiresome questions about what is excluded and unseen, eg where the rare earth metals in the chips come from and who works under what conditions to mine the materials and whether colonialist assumptions are appropriate, whether their knowledge systems are valuable. I’m assuming that this thread is a wind up, a sophisticated gag. Otherwise my earlier comments about collaboration are really largely irrelevant.

  6. cormac Says:

    The problem is that many constructivists went too far. It was an important area of intersection between science and the humanities, but, as many of them later admitted, a shadow was cast over the insights gained by the fact that the sociologists often ended up with some strabge conclusions (for example, Bruno Latour famously claimed that a certain Egyptian Pharoah couldn’t have died of TB because the disease wasn’t recognized at the time). The Sokal hoax then added support to the view of many scientists that sociologists of science were reaching questionable conclusions in their case studies of scientific practice because they lacked technical knowledge of the science .. that sort of doubt makes it very hard to get funding from the big funders

  7. James Fryar Says:

    ‘Sponge-Bob Square Pants: the father of the Minions?’
    ‘Perspectives on Wales by the one Inuit family living just outside Cardiff’
    ‘Cultural Stereotypes of the Irish: Bollywood films 1982 – 1984’

    These are made up PhD titles. Yet, they are not a million miles away from some the topics that have been awarded PhDs in the humanities.

    Do a quick search on google and you will discover a post-modernist argument that mathematicians use the letter ‘i’ to represent the square root of -1 because it is phallic and symbolises the desire by science to “conquer nature and penetrate her secrets”. No, I’m not making that one up. In the 1990s, there was a widespread criticism of post-modernist ideas, concepts, models, modes of thought, critiques, constructions (or is that deconstructions?) being applied to everything from economics to philosophy, from social science to journalism. We had humanities graduates dismissing the scientific approach to medicine. We had mass-quackery and pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. We had the ‘science wars’ in the US and the perception that much of the humanities was infected with a pervasive culture of ‘fashionable nonsense’.

    Anna pointed out that I was equating ‘the humanities’ with ‘post-modernism’. She is absolutely correct. I did exactly that.

    The reason I did it is because although no one denies the broad extent of the humanities, ALL humanities subjects have been tarnished by the sort of dubiously valuable (by any metric one applies), intellectually pornographic knowledge systems that have been a small, yet widely discussed, aspect of some of those subjects.

    All I’m suggesting is that the humanities has suffered from a colossal PR disaster of their own making. Members of the academia produced work, concepts and frameworks that the public thought were nothing more than wordy impenetrable BS. And it really is no surprise that the humanities are finding themselves having to ‘justify’ their funding.

  8. Whilst it’s easy to cite bizarre Phd subjects and question post-modern and deconstruction. One of the key and essential roles of critical practice is to notice that which is marginalised and excluded in particular by power and hegemony. It may be that some aspects of the social sciences and the humanities (and please don’t conflate them – they have distinctly different and equally valid methodologies, as do the arts) in seeking trajectories of critique and bringing robust methodologies to the hegemonies of science have explored some dead ends. But that ‘calling into question’ and looking for the marginal and excluded is essential. So I strongly support ‘rights of nature’ and ‘agency of all things’ positions whilst also being very interested in Ecosystems Services Assessment and having worked closely with scientists from the Scottish Gov SRP Food, Land, People : Environmental Change as well as in Health and with scientists at Queens Medical Research Institute U of Edinburgh.
    I’m a strong advocate for the position that the crises we are generating across the environmental and social are complex in ways that need both respectful interdisciplinarity as well as critical thinking because it is precisely in the excluded and marginalised that the complexity really kicks in – you might think of them as externalities in your terms.

  9. James Fryar Says:

    At the moment in my own field of physics you have the theorists who are arguing that the elegance of their maths hints at a deeper ‘truth’, and you have the ‘Popperazzi’ arguing that that ‘truth’ is nonsense without the experimental verification to support it. In the 1960s we abandoned trying to understand what quantum mechanics actually meant and instead concentrated on testing its conclusions and developing the Standard Model. Now we’re back looking at it wondering what it means in terms of our perception of the universe and the nature of reality. There is still a very real question in science about who decides what is important. As Chris points out, we *should* be looking at what has been marginalised and excluded. Astronomers had data suggesting the existence of dark matter in the 1930s. They ignored it. They ignored it again in the 1950s and ignored it in the 1960s. It was only when one researcher, Vera Rubin published her set of data (her second set, she’d ignored the first set taken by students that suggested it) at which point the herd changed direction. Why did that happen? So much for the impartial analysis of evidence! Humanities graduates would be well placed to help us make sense of it all and it is a pity that such collaborations were severed decades ago.

    I found Anna’s blog piece (which I read previously when originally posted) to be quite depressing. Not because of the arguments put forward, but because of the need to put them forward. I absolutely believe that in our multimedia, big data, technocratic society the humanities are more important than ever. And I’m sorry for using post-modernism as a dirty word! I understand that my ‘arguments’, maybe ‘rants’ would be better, are tedious and well-trodden.

    The only point I was trying to make is that there is an awful lot of ammunition out there that can, I think somewhat justifiably, be leveled against the humanities. I do think that there was an unhelpful wedge driven by both sides between science and the humanities, and some of the more esoteric fringe elements (on both sides) did no one any favours.

    Yes, there is a tendency for people to conflate very different aspects, fields, modes of thought and systems of knowledge, as I have done here. This is, I think, exactly what the public, taxpayer, and funding agencies have done. What I was doing was a form of confirmation bias – if I start with the premise that much of the humanities is a waste of time and money then how easy would it be to find dirt to throw at it. This is, incidentally, why I didn’t want to use real PhD titles. I thought it would be unfair to the authors.

    And my only real argument is, judging by the funding issues, I don’t think my humanities colleagues have come out fighting against it. I don’t think you’ve swayed the public against their confirmation bias.

  10. James – that’s very generous of you. And it’s been a useful discussion. From within the arts and humanities I hadn’t realised just what a negative perception there was of something that I took for granted. I just found this which again raises issues.

    • James Fryar Says:

      Chris – just to say, having read the blog post, one of the things that has bothered me for years is the portrayal of ‘the scientific method’. We’re all taught it as students and it involves such concepts as theories being formed and validated by experimental observations, data being impartially assessed, etc.. Anyone who actual works in the sciences knows deep down that it’s a load of BS. What really happens is that people think creatively, they take shortcuts based on experience and ‘gut feelings’, they present data in such a way as to conform to what they wanted to show while ignoring the data that didn’t come out quite like they’d wanted. We have publication biases because researchers who didn’t get the same results as those that were published often don’t report them, or they’re seen as replications of prior work and hence don’t make it through peer-review. But we continue to tick over and convince everyone of the primacy of the scientific method. When Maxwell produced his theory of electromagnetism he did so by altering one of the equations, not on the basis of any physical argument at the time, but on the basis that it made the equations more symmetric. It was an aesthetic choice! But we tend to paper over that because his alteration was later found to be valid. So I agree with the article you posted but, as I alluded to before, we’ve done a great PR job in the sciences to the extent that people see science as the ‘best’ method of achieving ‘knowledge’.

      The public is absolutely wowed by it all. The discovery of the Higgs boson means probably nothing in terms of economics or technology or spin-outs. Yet the discovery was plastered all over the media – what a wonderful time we live in. We have fond memories of Carl Sagan, and Brian Cox has ushered in a new wave of BBC2 science documentaries. Stephen Hawking isn’t just a theoretical physicist, he’s a cultural icon! I’ve met taxi drivers who, on learning my profession, bombarded me with questions such as ‘how can something (the universe) come from nothing?’, ‘is time really relative?’, ‘can we really affect something as large as the climate of the planet, or is it *just* a model?’. I met kids who wanted to know if cats can be alive or dead at the same time, if the colours they see are the same as what everyone else sees, and whether there are multiple universes in which alternative scenarios are playing out based on choices they did or didn’t make.

      In my mind, the public are widely supportive of some of the more esoteric, maybe ‘academic’ is a better word, aspects of theoretical physics, and happy to fund it. But, for some reason, the more ‘academic’ aspects of the humanities is not given the same licence. I think it has to do with science being very good at pimping itself out there for public consumption.

  11. cormac Says:

    Hmm. that’s an interesting link Chris, but I was surprised by the statement: “One problem with our current tendency to off-load all of our problem-solving onto science is that very few of us are actually scientists. 1999 Bureau of Labor statistics show that only 3.5% of the total US population worked as a scientist or engineer. … So, in turning exclusively to science for answers, we are ignoring the discovery potential of 96.5% of our human population”

    To me, that is not an argument against using science, it’s an argument for giving more people the chance of an introductory education in science. I always think that Newton or Boyle would be astonished to discover that, three hundred years later, a basic knowledge of modern science remains the preserve of the few

    • I don’t know how many arts seminars and conferences I have been to where one of the key issues either on the agenda or raised by participants is the need to engage with education more effectively. The argument is that we need to educate people to appreciate what we do. If only schools taught children and young people about contemporary art then when they were adults they’d obviously be more interested and understand how important contemporary art actually is. Just as we are having a wave of STEM education at the moment, so we had a wave of arts education when there were Cultural Co-ordinators in pretty much every local authority in Scotland (and an even bigger programme in England). The thing that seems of have stuck is the Youth Music programme which aims to ensure that every young person has an opportunity to learn a musical instrument. That seems to have survived beyond the normal cycles of policy. I suppose my point is that so long as each of us argues that we need more attention for our subject none of us will get any. Attention, whether that’s personal attention or policy/bureaucratic attention, is limited (very limited) and 95% consumed by just doing the things we normally do. I’m not sure any claim to more attention by any single discipline or practice will ever be more than momentarily successful. What we are all looking for is things that compel our attention because they make life easier or more interesting. I’m tempted to argue going back to my original point that co-creation and interdisciplinarity meet that criteria, but I’m not sure that they do in themselves. And I’m tempted to say that usefulness is what gets attention, but that kind of means that KE and Impact are really central, and I might get shouted at for that too. So I’m going to leave it for others to respond.

  12. cormac Says:

    ? That last post by Chris misunderstands my point completely. I don’t think that “we need to educate people to appreciate what we do”. I think instead that citizen smith has as much right as I do to have some idea about the natural world in which he lives. How can he or she make a meaningful decision on global warming, vaccination or sugar in foods unless he or she has some basic knowledge of the world of science, and some basic knowledge of the strength and weaknesses of the the methods of science?…

  13. cormac Says:

    As regards James’s statement : “Anyone who actual works in the sciences knows deep down that it’s a load of BS”, few of my colleagues would support that sort of sweeping overstatement.
    No scientist claims that the scientific method is foolproof. What we claim is that it has proven to be a surprisingly robust way of finding out about the world, mainly because of the criterion of reproducibilty. Bridges don’t fall down very often and planes don’t fall out of the sky for this reason.
    I also think your characterization of the public view of science is decades out of date. Nowadays, it is very common for members of the public to reject scientific findings out of hand if they clash with their worldview, from climate science to vaccination. This is a widespread phenomenon, not confined to crazed denialists. If you don’t believe me, try reading an article – any article – on climate change in a conservative news outlet such as the Wall St Journal

    • James Fryar Says:

      Cormac – that’s not quite what I meant by that statement. No one denies that the ‘laws of science’ work very well. What I was arguing is that the method by which we develop those laws is often quite different from the ‘scientific method’ that we tell ourselves we’ve used!

      A PhD thesis is a good example – despite the fact that a PhD is about three to four years, much of the presented data tends to be taken in the 12 months before writing it up. Often you find that the students took data in their first year and repeated those measurements before they wrote it up. And yes, there are reasons they may have done that – they may have refined the process by which they acquired the data. But that raises the question of what was wrong with the initial measurements? Did they not allow a conclusion to be drawn? I’d argue that what tends to happen is that the context in which that data is viewed evolves with the PhD. The ‘question’ the student was trying to answer at the start of their PhD is not necessarily the ‘question’ they answer by the end, even though the data they took may be the same.

      We see the same thing when people write papers. The data remains the same but the way it is framed changes with successive re-writes. Often a new measurement is introduced (one that initially hadn’t been thought of) and when that’s added to the paper, the context and conclusion change. Often the actual reason for conducting the research changes subtly between re-writes. The abstract adapts to reflect the evolving nature of the data acquired. I’m just suggesting that the actual process we use is a bit more complicated and less impersonal and rational than the ‘scientific method’ we present to students!

      In terms of public views of science I think you’re right. But I think the sorts of reactions you’re referring to are a minority of the public. In the US, for example, about 70% of citizens accept global warming according to polls taken just before the Paris talks. Even in the Republican party, the split is 56% accepting it. The noise being made by the minority in these cases is, I’d suggest, disproportionate to their size.

  14. cormac Says:

    Interesting….have you a reference for 70% figure? I’d be more than a little surprised if 70% of Americans accept the scientific consensus on athropogenic global warming. I suspect the 70% figure pertains to some loose acceptance of the reality of climate change, not an accpetance of the effect of GHG emissions.

    • James Fryar Says:

      The poll I was quoting can be found at:

      And yes you’re correct … the wording is quite careful in the poll. It assessed belief that the globe was warming which, as you point out, is not the same as accepting that our actions are causing it.

      I don’t disagree with your point about science education. I was at an interesting talk a few years back given by Bill McComas who raised the question as to whether we might help in that process by trying to formally define what we mean by terms like hypothesis, theory, law, model, etc. These terms are used as ammunition by sections of the population as a counter-argument – evolution is *just* a theory, global warming is *only* based on models, etc. Bill was suggesting that because scientists have a tendency to use these terms interchangeably, it causes confusion as to how much evidence is present. Why do we call it the ‘theory of evolution’ and the ‘law of the lever’? Anyway, just thought I’d mention it in the context of science education.

  15. cormac Says:

    Thanks for the link, I had a look. It’s a very interesting and reputable poll but it’s strange that there is no mention in the study that a substantial part of the 70% may consider global warming to be part of a natural cycle.If that is the case, there is no reason to expect them to be be willing to consider action to counteract GHG it’s not as rosy as it appears…

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