There has been a certain amount of activity in my twitter feed recently centring on the concept of ‘responsible research’. In a different time, this would not have stood out as anything unusual. I imagine that most of us in the profession seek to be ‘responsible’ in what we do, so articulating that can only be a good thing, right? But we are in a time when such concepts have a propensity to be appropriated and put to an ends very different from what one might expect. I have in mind here the use of words such as ‘excellence’ and ‘teaching’ in the UK at present…
So, I wondered what this idea of ‘responsibility’ might mean in practice. One of the first things I came upon was this presentation slide on twitter.
My worries began with the reference to ‘socially desirable innovations’. It begs the question of who determines what is ‘desirable’, and whether it is now my ‘responsibility’ to make my research fit their wishes rather than telling them what they may not want to hear. One has only to to think of a recent election result to understand that what a society desires is not the unproblematic legitimation it might seem…
Those worries increased when I read the third column, and tracked down the challenges to which it alludes. They would appear to be the ones identified by the EU in the context of the Horizon 2020 funding programme.
The marginalization of the Humanities is obvious and depressingly familiar; the one-off inclusion of the word itself, and the lonesome reference to ‘reflective societies’ in one of the seven points, merely underlines the impression.
Think back, now, to that presentation slide on ‘responsible research and innovation in action’, and take a moment to reflect on what it means in this light. It means that research that does not fit a STEM-oriented paradigm, research that does not go to market, research of the kind that many of us in the Humanities do for a living – is not responsible research.
The way the Humanities feature (or not) in this discourse of ‘challenges’ is unfortunate, but it is not my main concern here. Much of the art of getting this kind of funding lies in working with the priorities of funding bodies as they set them, and in practice I have, as a Marie Curie Fellow, a great deal of freedom in my research and a framework in which I can articulate why it matters for society as a whole. So there are ways of staking out a place for fields such as Medieval Studies on this kind of landscape.
What I find troubling is something else: the way in which, on that slide, a moral-ethical quality in the form of ‘responsibility’ has become instrumentalized as a vehicle for a specific concept of what research should be and do. It is one thing to have a framework in which the Humanities are sidelined – quite another to present the research of those who believe otherwise as, by implication, irresponsible.