Fuelling prosperity and growth

Crossing continents

Almost three-quarters of the UK economy is now in services and in a myriad of ways these are infused (as the LSE Growth Commission emphasised) by the knowledge and skills that training in humanities and social sciences develop in individuals.

The ability to sell to other countries – or persuade people there to invest here – requires knowledge and understanding of other societies, their pasts, their economies and their social structures. Foreign language skills in particular play a crucial role in opening up many overseas markets – one of the reasons why the British Academy, with other partners, is campaigning for serious attention to be paid to the UK’s growing language deficit. More broadly, these skills open up many other kinds of cross-national and cross-cultural discourse, including diplomacy and international security – a point forcibly made in the Academy’s recent report Lost for Words, and echoed in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ report, The Heart of the Matter. Quoting Senator William Fulbright, it stresses the vital importance of ‘intercultural education’ and empathy – what he called ‘the ability to see the world as others do and allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately’. See the Academy's recent report Lost for Words and Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, The Heart of the Matter, American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Cambridge (Mass.), 2013

As research itself becomes an ever more international enterprise, the importance of language skills, for all areas of research, is increasingly evident as a way of enabling scholars to cross frontiers of understanding, to mutual advantage in both directions. A critical understanding of the role of translation is a vital part of this. Carol Palmer, director of the British Institute at Amman, Jordan – one of the overseas institutes supported by the British Academy – organises workshops for teachers and researchers from across the Middle East and North Africa. The goal, she explains, ‘is to help academics develop themselves and train their students to be aware that translation is not just a technical skill, and understand the choices that translators make, and how that influences what is understood.’ These areas are proving a rich and important field of study, ranging from exploring the complex relationship between cultural memory and translation, and the limits and boundaries of language, to analyses of the enormous range of linguistic diversity, and its cultural strengths, inherent in modern-day Britain. British Academy Postdoctoral Fellows talk about how the scheme is enabling them to pursue research in these areas – Dr Sharon Deane-Cox studying translation and cultural memory in the context of World War Two France, and Dr Petros Karatsareas studying innovation and change in UK immigrant communities. See video

We need more people who can supplement their specialist knowledge in a particular professional, scientific or other disciplinary area with an understanding of other languages, cultures, religions or moral codes. Understanding other faiths has become a growing social and political imperative. If policy decisions are made in this country in relation to one of our vital trading partners across the world, or if we send aid or aid-workers abroad, without understanding the religions which will be encountered, that vacuum of understanding is as dangerous and as counter-productive as not understanding the economic structures or the transport network.

Sir Adam Roberts FBA draws on a life’s work studying peace, conflict and war in different regions of the world. His book Documents on the Laws of War, first published in 1982, remains hugely influential both among academics and for practitioners in contemporary combat zones. In foreign and security affairs, he says, scholars are bound to point out that the history of relations between states demonstrates fundamental differences in perspective and values. The advice might be that intervention is usually difficult and could embroil the UK for a generation.

‘Making the policy environment more complex may save us from serious difficulty, even tragedy. In the 1990s we were guilty of thinking that globalisation sweeps all before it and we simply underestimated the complexity of the task of rebuilding fractured societies, be they in Afghanistan or Iraq. That was largely because of a lack of interest in and knowledge of those societies, and their long-standing internal divisions.’

He continues: ‘We have a mania for having lots of very up-to-date information, whether it comes from news agencies, television or intelligence agencies. It is a mania for up-to-date information without a sense of where a society is coming from and what its collective experience has been.’ As William Dalrymple’s history of the British-Afghan conflicts of the 19th century, Return of the King, has shown, we have been here before.

In 2013 Roberts was part of a team from the International Institute for Strategic Studies holding the first ever talks of their kind with ‘top-level people’ in Islamabad and New Delhi. ‘We were inquiring into the possibilities of arms control and of a reduction of tension between India and Pakistan – both nuclear parties that are outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. On this first mission the important thing to do was to listen carefully to both sides separately, to find out what the security concerns and worries are, and what they thought about various possibilities for a reduction of tension between the two states.’ All parties saw the meetings as a success, and hope to build on them. That offers a powerful example of the way that expertise gained from (in this case) a lifetime’s research into peacekeeping successes and failures and conflict reduction in hostile zones can make an active contribution to the search for improved international dialogue and understanding.

In their different ways, each of these examples warns against simplistic thinking about what knowledge means in a modern 21st century economy and how we can nurture, value and use it. There is no longer a place for the kind of old thinking Nicholas Stern identifies as based on mechanical input-output models ‘where it is only if you can weigh it or give a formula for it that it has substance’. Today’s economy, based on knowledge and ideas, is far more fluid, far less capable of easy definition than any of its predecessors – but at the same time, is in many ways more exciting and creative, provided we understand better where we are, the lessons of the past and the opportunities for the future.

A recent study of big data calculated ‘there is enough information in the world to give every person alive 320 times as much of it as historians think was stored in the Library of Alexandria’. Mayer-Schoenberger and Culier, Big Data, London, 2013 This information explosion offers extraordinary possibilities, especially in an era of fast-rising open access – but only when married with sophisticated forms of analysis, interpretation and insight. Economic growth needs the constant fuel of human inspiration. It is that which puts knowledge to use. It depends on ideas created and exchanged across disciplines, between academics and producers, entrepreneurs and scientists, disseminators and translators. It requires critical scrutiny, innovative thinking and new ideas – processes and approaches nurtured by humanities and social science training and driven forward by high-level academic research and expertise. These are seed beds for the kind of prosperous, innovation-based economy we have now become, crucial elements both for future growth and success and for richness in our individual lives.