Photograph of a cove with waves crashing over a stone jetty and a rocky coastline in the background.
Landscape Futures and the Challenge of Change Project: Waves overtopping Mullion Harbour, Cornwall, in 2014. © Russell Johnston, 2014.
Landscape Futures and the Challenge of Change Project: Waves overtopping Mullion Harbour, Cornwall, in 2014. © Russell Johnston, 2014.

Developing Historic England’s Research Funding Partnerships

Working in partnership to deliver innovative research into the historic environment.

Historic England’s research status and capability

Historic England’s research is ‘applied’ as it directly supports the understanding, enjoyment, protection and management of England’s historic environment. Research is a vital part of our work supporting much of the activity in our Corporate Plan.

It is very wide-ranging, encompassing research on archaeological sites, landscapes, historic buildings and areas, research to support the development of heritage policy and guidance, socio-economic research, technical conservation and heritage science among other areas.

Alongside our internal regional and national programmes, we also commission and provide grant funding through our Heritage Protection Commissions Programme to support the Heritage Sector. Currently this amounts to £3.4m each year.

When in 2017 UK Research and Innovation, the umbrella body for the Research Councils, awarded Historic England Independent Research Organisation status it opened a third channel of potential research resourcing, external funding. The award was to the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, the formal title for Historic England and incorporating the English Heritage Trust.

Independent Research Organisation status is awarded to organisations that have an in-house capacity to carry out research that substantially extends and enhances the national research base and can demonstrate an independent capability to undertake and lead research programmes. There are other legal and financial criteria that must be met. Arts and Humanities Independent Research Organisations are eligible to bid for funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and other UK Research and Innovation Councils in the same way as a university.

Support for development as an Independent Research Organisation

In this issue we focus on the growing portfolio of externally funded research collaborations and projects we have been developing since becoming an Independent Research Organisation. To support our new Independent Research Organisation status we published our Research Agenda in 2017. This sets out the priority themes, topics and research questions for the historic environment in England, to have emerged from external and internal consultation. The agenda provides a ‘shop window’ for the research we feel is most needed and which serves as a starting point for establishing research partnerships with universities, fellow-Independent Research Organisations and other bodies.

To help exploit the opportunities afforded by our Independent Research Organisation status a new post of National Head of Research, to which I was appointed, was created in early 2019 in part to lead development of Historic England’s externally-funded research partnerships. This post was augmented by a Research and Academic Partnerships Manager, Dr Jo Byrne, in late 2020 with, among other tasks, specific responsibility for the management of our Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The National Research Team has been further strengthened with an apprentice research co-ordinator (see the article by Adam Vamplew), with additional support provided by a Senior Business Co-ordinator and colleagues in our Finance and Legal Teams.

The team provides advice and support to colleagues across the organisation in identifying funding opportunities that align with our priorities, formulating and submitting research funding proposals and supporting grant-funded projects post-award. It has also commissioned research integrity, good conduct and ethics statements and policies for the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England.

Applying for UK Research and Innovation grants is a highly competitive process and only some proposals get funded. Even when they are not successful, the partnerships involved in the development of proposals often result in subsequent collaborations. As our knowledge of the external funding process and partnerships has grown so has our success rate in terms of grant capture.

Since becoming an Independent Research Organisation Historic England has been represented on the arts and humanities Independent Research Organisations Consortium. This comprises the Heads of Research from 23 of the leading cultural and heritage organisations in the UK who come together in a mutually supportive knowledge-sharing forum. The research carried out by the Independent Research Organisations is highly valued by UK Research and Innovation, and the Consortium is increasingly asked to contribute to the development of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s future strategy and funding steams. We have found our involvement with the Consortium to be very beneficial. As National Head of Research, I am the current Co-chair with Pip Willcox, Head of Research at The National Archives.

Establishing research partnerships

In 2018, as a test bed for research partnership development, Historic England established an Academic-Heritage Partnership with the Institute of Sustainable Heritage at University College London as part of a five-year strategic collaboration. This has strengthened knowledge exchange between academic and policy environments and involved Historic England staff contributing to the delivery of an Institute for Sustainable Heritage pilot course on heritage evidence, foresight and policy, as well as to joint development of research funding proposals.

In 2021 we ran a knowledge exchange programme on heritage and wellbeing with the Cambridge Heritage Research Centre and others at the University of Cambridge. This has proved helpful in forging research relationships and in shaping our thinking on the connections between heritage, wellbeing and place. Beyond these more formal arrangements many partnership projects emerge from existing contacts between Historic England staff, academics and other partners.

To date 30 PhDs on priority research themes have been completed or are in progress across Historic England and English Heritage under the Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships scheme.

Supporting Postgraduate Research

The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England has since 2013 been an award holder in the Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships Scheme funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Jo Byrne provides a fuller account of our involvement in the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership and of the Doctoral Training Partnership scheme later in this issue, and we hear from some of our Collaborative Doctoral Partnership and Doctoral Training Partnership students about their research.

Current Research Projects

Historic England staff play a variety of roles in UK Research and Innovation-funded projects, including project leader and senior project team member, (‘Principal Investigator’ and ‘Co-investigator’ respectively in research council parlance). In larger projects, funding is also provided for project staff who are sometimes hosted with us. Our biggest grant awarded to date is for the £2.9m ‘Unpath’d Waters’ Project led by Barney Sloane and involving university, Independent Research Organisation, and marine/maritime organisation partners. Barney updates on the project in this issue.

We have been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to deliver a pilot ‘Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums’ and heritage research hub project, ‘Outreach to Ownership’. This partnership with Historic Environment Scotland and the Arts and Humanities Research Council involves us funding and supporting five partners to deliver community-based culture and heritage research projects in England and Scotland. Charlie Garratt and Ben Thomas describe this exciting initiative.

We also take a look at other recently funded projects led by Historic England such as Keith May’s Arts and Humanities Research Council Leadership Fellowship, ‘The Matrix’.

Examples of projects where we have supplied a Co-investigator include:

  • Landscape Futures and the Challenge of Change’ led by Prof Caitlin DeSilvey, University of Exeter, with Dr Hannah Fluck, as Co-investigator, which focuses on the accelerating effects of climate change on heritage and on strategies to address these impacts
  • ‘Seascapes: Tracing the emergence and spread of maritime networks in the Central Western Mediterranean in the 3rd millennium BC’, a joint Arts & Humanities Research Council and German Research Foundation UK-German Funding Initiative in the Humanities project led by Dr Lucy Cramp, University of Bristol, to which our Co-investigator , Prof Alex Bayliss, contributes scientific dating expertise.
  • In a further international collaboration, this time via the European Open Science Cloud - Life programme, researcher Emma Karoune is currently hosted by Historic England’s Investigative Science Team, researching how to make phytolith data findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (‘FAIR’).

New opportunities

In the research infrastructure area, the Arts and Humanities Research Council is awaiting final approval of a bid for £80m over five years to fund a distributed centre of excellence for conservation and heritage science research known as ‘Research Infrastructure for Conservation and Heritage Science, RICHeS’. Other funding opportunities are in the area of Culture and Heritage Capital, and for Historic England to host an early career fellow in culture and heritage.

Recently, we have learned that the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England’s application to run a fourth round of the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership programme has been successful, with a new call for proposals due to be issued in Summer 2023.

In October 2023 we will also be joined by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Innovation Scholar in Architecture and Design, Dr Johnathan Djabarouti of the Manchester School of Architecture, who will work with us to research the interface between historic places and intangible heritage.

Through these initiatives and others, such as the revision of our research agenda and development of a research funding framework, we continue to take a strategic approach to growing our external research income. This will support our mission, and, importantly, build our internal capacity to take maximum advantage of the many opportunities for Historic England to work in collaboration. The benefits are mutual: Historic England gains influence and learns from our partnerships, and the heritage sector gains from our research, advice and engagement at international, national and local levels.

About the author

Name and role

John Cattell

Title and organisation
National Head of Research at Historic England
John has worked for Historic England and its predecessors since 1989 in a variety of roles including Chief Buildings Historian and Research Director. He is now responsible ​for developing and leading the organisation's national research work. John is also responsible for Historic England's relationships with the Research Councils and leading on Independent Research Organisation engagement.

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