Three-D Issue 26: Still a struggle for recognition: funding for communication, cultural and media research in the UK

19John Downey
Loughborough University

Despite calls for recognition of the value of interdisciplinary research it is still not clear how the field of communication, cultural and media studies that draws on a number of arts, humanities and social science disciplines fits into the funding plans of the two most directly relevant UK funding councils, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). As there is little or no data forthcoming from these councils concerning the success or otherwise of funding bids submitted by academics in our field, MeCCSA commissioned some scoping research in 2015 with alarming results.

Data was collected through keyword searching RCUK’s Gateway to Research database (gtr.rcuk.ac.uk) for ESRC and AHRC funded research in the field between January 2010 and August 2015.

Combined AHRC/ESRC funding for media, communication and cultural studies research over the 2010-2015 period was on average around £9m year per annum. There is, however, considerable variation between years: 2012 is a significant outlier in the data as the AHRC distributed a large amount of funds in this area (over £16m). This was made up of a relatively small number of large grants made in the area of creative industries to large consortia of universities. On average over the last five years the AHRC has provided considerably more funding for research on media and communications related topics than the ESRC. This again is the consequence of significant funding being dispersed by the AHRC in 2012. In 2014 and 2015 the ESRC exceeded the AHRC in the amount of funding given to research on media and communications related topics. There is, therefore, no discernible pattern in terms of research funding with one research council clearly funding more research than the other. This variability in itself could be interpreted to mean that there is no clear funding strategy for the field either in AHRC or ESRC with the danger that the field falls between two stools with researchers uncertain about who would potentially fund what. This clearly acts as a disincentive to apply for funding in the first place.

There seems to be no discernible pattern in the distribution of funds to Russell Group/Non-Russell Group institutions with the total funds distributed to RG/Non RG institutions being almost equal over the six year period (£27m each). The research picture for the fields of media, communication, and cultural studies is a particularly complicated one as many of the leading research groups in these fields do not belong to Russell Group universities. These figures would imply that there is much world-leading research going on outside Russell group universities as evident in REF 2014 results in the field that does not appear to have the same chance of securing research council funding.

Funding distribution to Principal Investigators based in Media and Comunication Departments or with significant Media and Communication teaching and research portfolios

Funding distribution to Principal Investigators based in Media and Comunication Departments or with significant Media and Communication teaching and research portfolios

The most worrying finding of the research for MeCCSA members is that both the AHRC and ESRC have distributed more funds to Principal Investigators working outside of the field of communication, cultural and media studies than those working in the field between 2010 and 2015 (i.e. PIs working in departments that do not teach significant amounts of communication, cultural and media studies). Essentially research funding in this area has been colonized by academics working in traditional single discipline departments that do not teach communication, cultural and media studies. This raises issues concerning the validity of judgments made about the quality of research proposals. One would expect that leading researchers and groups in the field would be more successful in funding applications than individuals working in departments outside the field. The situation is particularly pronounced for the ESRC. The ESRC have allocated nine times more funding to PIs outside communication and media studies than inside communication and media studies. The disparity in the distribution of funds by the ESRC between those working within and outside communication and media studies has grown year on year between 2010 and 2015.

On the basis of this scoping research the MeCCSA Executive has made the following recommendations that we will be pursuing with the ESRC and AHRC:

  • The AHRC and ESRC should explicitly recognise the fields of media, communication, and cultural studies in their remits permitting researchers to identify themselves as scholars in these fields when applying for funding;
  • The AHRC and ESRC should jointly clarify how they will fund research in these fields in the future (for example, which subjects and methods are appropriate to which funding council);
  • The AHRC and ESRC should collect and publish data about the number, size and provenance of failed and successful applications for research funding made in the field on an annual basis;
  • The AHRC and ESRC should make sure that the field is adequately represented in peer review colleges and that appropriate reviewers are appointed to review proposals;
  • The AHRC and ESRC should appoint leading academics from the field to panels and committees determining funding decisions and strategic direction of the research councils;
  • The AHRC and ESRC should liaise with MeCCSA in discussing how changes can be made and in evaluating the progress made towards creating a level playing field for research funding for the fields of media, communication and cultural studies in the UK.

In addition, there are things that MeCCSA members can do. We would encourage you to apply for vacancies in ESRC and AHRC peer review colleges, panels and committees when they arise. This is key in assuring that when colleagues do apply their proposals are evaluated by experts in the field and not by academics from other fields or disciplines.

Raw data from this research is available in web format or directly via Google Sheets.

Posted by Einar Thorsen