Dr Manuel Fernández-Götz and Dr Mirko Canevaro speak to Retrospect about their recent appointments to the Young Academy of Europe

By Alfie Garland and Daniel Sharp

Two members of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology have recently been given new appointments to the Young Academy of Europe. Dr Manuel Fernández-Götz and Dr Mirko Canevaro are, respectively, Reader in Archaeology and Reader in Greek History at the School, and have been appointed to the Executive Board of the Academy and as a Fellow, respectively. Retrospect sat down with them in Dr Fernández-Götz’s office to talk about their impressive achievement.

We first asked them to explain what the Young Academy is for those who do not know. We were told, with a smile, that ‘young’ in this case meant under 50. Essentially, the Academy is a body which brings together experts to coordinate on policymaking throughout Europe. It is actually an umbrella organisation under which are many national Academies, such as the Scottish division which Dr Canevaro is already a member of. The Academy gives Dr Fernández-Götz and Dr Canevaro access to politicians who researchers would not normally have contact with. Ultimately, the Academy offers them an opportunity to contribute to political debates and decision making indirectly by feeding politicians with different perspectives. Dr Canevaro mentioned, with pride, his discussions with the Scottish Parliament, where he, as part of the Young Academy of Scotland, helped dissuade them from a policy of giving postgraduate grants only to STEM students, arguing that this, far from widening student participation, undermines it by shutting out those who think the Humanities are the best way forward for them.

The Young Academy has its roots in the Academia Europaea. The new institution responded to a need for fresher perspectives on current pressing issues. Its constitution has proven to be incredibly beneficial to academic research, as both institutions produce different research.

Dr Fernández-Götz and Dr Mirko Canevaro brought attention to the rankings to which all academics are subjected to. As positions are highly contested, the Academy provides academics with opportunities to bid for honours and awards that can serve academics to gain a higher reputation within their fields of study. The appointment of Dr Fernández-Götz and Dr Canevaro to the Young Academy is a fantastic recognition for the pair’s brilliant research. Furthermore, with such nomination comes benefits for the whole School of History, Classics and Archaeology. We learned through them that thanks to their nomination, academic staff in the HCA will be able to apply for grants accounting to two million euros.

Interestingly, the Young Academy is largely formed by academic scientists rather than specialists from the Humanities. Retrospect asked what Humanities brought to the table in a room filled with scientists. Dr Fernández-Götz argued that the skills inculcated by studies in this branch of academia were vital. Self-reflection on contexts and processes as well as a critical voice and critical thinking – tools that are absolutely essential in any discussion on public policy or academic research. Furthermore, he highlighted an important connotation in the word ‘humanities’. What does it mean to be human or to be humane? Is there a difference? If so, what is it? Can we collectivise humans? And humane characteristics? What are the implications of our interpretation of ‘humanity’ when considering an individual’s role within a community? Dr Fernández-Götz quoted Winston Churchill on how this relates specifically to history: ‘The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.’

On this subject, both academics stated that many of the hard sciences and the humanities are not too different in terms of their perspective. They actually stated that there is a greater difference between humanities, social sciences, and economics than between humanities and hard sciences. Humanities and hard sciences have a penchant for blue-sky research, whereas social sciences and economics mostly address quantifiable research and knowledge. By way of illustration, they mentioned Peter Higgs, professor in Physics and one of Edinburgh University’s most recent Nobel prize winners, who said that if he had tried to conduct that style of research today, he would have been fired.

Finally, Dr Canevaro and Dr Fernández-Götz lamented the dependence of academic research on finances. Dr Canevaro said that academics are terrified by a mythically monstrous taxpayer who, according to those who worry more about funding than the benefits of research, is such a penny-pincher that he or she cannot be prodded at all into paying any money for anything. Thankfully, our chat did not finish on this sour note, but rather with inspirational words from Dr Fernández-Götz on the centrality of curiosity and passion over the mundane fixation on money that has so afflicted academia lately.

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