By Professor Mark Jackson, University of Exeter
The academic world is changing. The introduction of fees, rising student numbers, constraints on research funding and the push for open access, amongst other factors, have already altered the landscape of higher education and transformed relationships between academics, students and society. Since 1986, the rhythm and scope of scholarly research and publication have also been dictated by the demands created by periodic state-administered peer assessment: initially in the form of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), now the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The outcomes of the Stern Review, the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework, and the potential for Brexit to constrain international exchange of scholars and ideas constitute further sources of uncertainty and anxiety in the sector.
At first blush, our world might seem bleak. But we need to identify and magnify sources of hope and counter the forces of despair. The following personal reflections as a member of the REF 2014 history sub-panel are intended not only to help us understand past trajectories more clearly, but also to fashion the future of the history of science, technology and medicine (HSTM) more constructively.
Looking back: REF 2014
In its report on the discipline, the history sub-panel of REF 2014 highlighted HSTM as an area of particular quality. There are number of reasons for a moderate sense of satisfaction. In the first instance, its tangled multi-disciplinary roots and the diverse institutional sites occupied by HSTM (in history, the philosophy of science, the biological sciences and STS, for example) have clearly encouraged scholars to mix methods, to identify new sources (including the tools, materials and bureaucratic technologies of STM), to generate new questions and historiographical perspectives, and to speak eloquently and creatively across disciplinary boundaries, bringing fertility and vibrancy to the field.
Secondly, it was evident that many of the publications of early career researchers were especially innovative, a feature of REF submissions across the discipline that was also singled out by the sub-panel and provides optimism for the growth of inventive research in this area. Thirdly, HSTM attracted significant external funds for research, largely from the Wellcome Trust, but also from other research councils and charitable funding bodies. Financial support not only made possible high-quality research and impact projects, but also facilitated the recruitment of doctoral students and contributed strikingly to narratives of the research environment in institutions with strong clusters of scholars in HSTM.
Fourthly, unlike some sub-disciplines of history, scholars in HSTM demonstrated their willingness and capacity to address global as well as local contexts, in the process foregrounding the impact of cultural factors on knowledge and practice and developing comparative perspectives that more effectively connected history with the anthropology, ethnography, philosophy and sociology of STM.
Finally, HSTM made major contributions to impact in REF 2014. In part, the capacity for HSTM to engage with publics and policy-makers is facilitated by the popularity of the subject matter, but it also reflects the energy and enthusiasm of HSTM scholars and their willingness to move beyond research in the medical humanities solely as a form of critique, instead adopting approaches that recognise the social and political value of engaged research and qualitative evidence.
Looking forwards: REF 2021
In spite of the multiple strengths of HSTM evident in submissions to REF 2014, we should not be complacent. The challenge of sustaining the field and anticipating and addressing any new constraints set by the implementation of the Stern Review or by the social, political, economic and personal consequences of Brexit need to be acknowledged and confronted.
So what lies ahead for HSTM? It is clear that there is a growing call (from funders, the public and the academy) for transdisciplinary research within the humanities and social sciences that engages creatively throughout the research cycle with practitioners, publics and policy-makers. In REF 2021 and beyond, the consolidation of impact and the popularity of approaches that involve the co-creation of knowledge will place an even greater premium on high-quality interdisciplinary research. HSTM scholars should not only be prepared to exploit this trend, which they are well-placed to do, but also to set the research agenda themselves: to identify and develop appropriate methodologies; to provide and interpret qualitative evidence; to lead the recruitment and training of early career researchers capable of building expansive, mixed-methods research projects; and to broker conversations with government and policy-makers. In this way, the HSTM community can provide not only a platform for innovative research, but also the techniques and tools for effective engagement and impact.
In the past, the history of medicine has arguably dominated HSTM in terms of funding through the Wellcome Trust. Recent constructive changes in the form and focus of Wellcome Trust funding, with its expansion into the medical humanities and social sciences, as well as the Trust’s commitment to collaborative multi-disciplinary projects, will allow scholars in HSTM to ensure that the history and philosophy of science and technology remain central to the field and to avoid overly narrow approaches to histories of knowledge and practice. The challenge here will be to sustain the diversity of personnel, methods, sources and outputs that currently define the field, to continue to engage funders in debates about strategic investment of resources, and to liaise with publishers to mobilise financial support for open access without compromising intellectual autonomy and professional credibility.
There are always strategic decisions to be made by institutions in preparing for REF: how many, and which, academics to submit; whether to double-weight monographs (which REF 2014 revealed was, barring one or two exceptions, always beneficial); which forms of impact to pursue; when in the REF cycle to recruit new staff and postgraduates. Whatever emerges from consultation on the Stern Review (which directly addresses many of these issues) and the subsequent formulation of the assessment criteria and working methods for REF 2021, institutions will continue to adopt creative strategies to maximise their profiles. While recognising the larger political landscape that will dictate their future, historians of STM need not be defensive about their discipline or their impact. Constructive and supportive in its approach to maintaining disciplinary standards while also evaluating interdisciplinary outputs and impact, the history sub-panel for REF 2014 recognised the quality of research in HSTM. As a recognised field of research, HSTM is in a strong position to extend the boundaries of historical scholarship, refine the parameters and purchase of interdisciplinary research, to train postgraduate students and early career scholars to ask and answer critical questions in relation to science, technology and health, and to set the agenda for engaged research and impact. The future may well be demanding, but it is certainly not bleak.