The Open World Research initiative (OWRI) has left rich legacies to build on, writes Professor Janice Carruthers, dean of research in arts, humanities and social sciences at Queen’s University Belfast

I have just completed a four-year period as priority area leadership fellow for modern languages with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), during which time I had the privilege of meeting many researchers in the discipline around the UK.

A key part of my role was to work with the projects at the centre of the AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative (OWRI), a major investment in modern languages which built on the success of the AHRC’s Translating Cultures programme.

What has OWRI achieved in terms of strengthening and shaping the disciplinary field in languages research? OWRI was a ‘challenge-based’ initiative, designed to explore how languages can play a central role in addressing major issues of our time and in raising the profile of languages-led research.

For me, it is through the interdisciplinary and intersectoral partnerships that the most significant new ground has been broken. In some instances, this involved collaboration with the social sciences, particularly with education, where research-based toolkits have been developed to re-energise language learning; elsewhere, interdisciplinary partnerships have been formed with the health and biological sciences, impacting on research into ageing, autism, experiences of cancer patients, and biodiversity.

Intersectoral partnerships stretched across community groups, charities, NGOs, creative artists, museums, libraries, educational bodies such as examination boards, as well as government departments, both in Whitehall and the devolved administrations. Such partnerships were crucial in forming impactful research questions, taking forward the research, and in public engagement.

Two other OWRI legacies are particularly important. One concerns the creation of a cohort of more than 40 postdoctoral researchers, trained to work as agile members of large research teams. The other relates to the broadening out of the term ‘languages’ and the increased levels of collaboration between researchers working on European languages, major global languages such as Chinese and Arabic, minoritised languages at home and around the world, and crucially, the multiple community languages spoken in all parts of the UK.

There will be both challenges and opportunities ahead in building on the legacy of OWRI. Sustaining the non-academic partnerships that were vital to public engagement and co-created research will require commitment and institutional support. Embedding new research developments and methodologies into research-led teaching may bring structural challenges but have the potential to attract undergraduates from both scientific and humanities backgrounds.

Taking forward policy proposals will need strategic thinking and tenacity in a post-Brexit and post-pandemic context. Finding a place for the talents of a new generation of early-career researchers is one of the most significant current challenges, given the shifting undergraduate patterns, as is ensuring that young people from every social background have access to the benefits of language learning.

In short, harnessing strategically and cohesively the benefits of diversification will be key to a positive future, whether in the socio-economic profile of the undergraduates we recruit, in the range of undergraduate programmes on offer, or through a balanced profile of innovative disciplinary and interdisciplinary research.

Find out more about OWRI at: Open World Research Initiative Showcases Value of Modern Languages.

Janice Carruthers is professor of French linguistics at Queen’s University Belfast and dean of research in the faculty of arts, humanities and social sciences.


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