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A balanced world of SHAPE and STEM is vital for recovery and beyond

A balanced world of SHAPE and STEM is vital for recovery and beyond

03 June 2021

In this regular series, colleagues from across OUP worldwide share their views and insights into how their markets are navigating the changes facing our industry, and what the future has in store.


Over the past year, headlines have repeatedly indicated that SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities, the Arts for People and the Economy) disciplines are under threat. From universities cutting humanities degrees and enrolment numbers dropping, to the challenges faced by cultural venues like art galleries and museums forced to close during national lockdowns, their future seems uncertain. Only this month, the UK government revealed plans for halving expenditure on with the arts subjects at universities, prompting many artists and musicians across the country to warn of the detrimental impact on the creative potential of the future generation. Savings will be redirected to other areas such as nursing and computing and, while there is no denying the importance of these subjects, does it mean that we are overlooking the profound contribution of SHAPE in finding solutions to global issues?

The message that these funding cuts, announcements, and closures gives is that SHAPE disciplines have no role to play in our future and that STEM skills will be at the forefront to guide our recovery. In reality, all research disciplines have a role to play in forging our post-Covid future. As we look for ways to rebuild our economy and reshape our financial futures, we rely on economists. As we roll out national vaccination programmes and booster programmes, behavioural psychologists and social scientists can help us to understand how to reach different groups and ensure the greatest success. And as we come together nationally and internationally to grieve for what has been lost and contemplate a new world,  history, literature, and the arts will be where we turn to record our experiences for future generations and to explore and express our humanity.

As Dr Kathryn Murphy and Professor Tom McLeish discussed on the latest edition of the Oxford Comment podcast, humans have created an opposition between science and the arts since the Early Modern period. Initially, this came from trying to further our understanding of different branches of knowledge that come together in a whole.  But as centuries have passed, the divide has become more fractious, more rivalrous. However, if we’ve learnt anything over the last 18 months, it is that, in isolation, science can only do so much. Now more than ever, the humanities, arts, and social sciences help us to navigate a rapidly changing world. SHAPE subjects provide the methodological tools for impartial, evidence-based research and analysis, and through them we develop our capacity for critical thinking, creativity, and communication. SHAPE graduates and enthusiasts are central to creating and sustaining the versatile, resilient workforce that will respond to the huge challenges we face, identify future opportunities, and nurture innovation. While scientists have given us a successful vaccine against Covid-19 and should be rightly praised for this, the SHAPE subjects have an equally important role to play in helping the world to resume and adapt to a ‘new normal’.

So it seems fair to say that the ideal landscape for research and education in the future is one that balances SHAPE and STEM to everyone’s advantage. Take, for example, a pressing issue like climate change. It will be the engineers, physicists, and chemists who discover the mechanisms for reducing our collective carbon footprint and reversing the damage already done to our planet but, just as with our response and recovery to the pandemic, the SHAPE scholars will have a vital part to play. Exploring literature and history from an ecological perspective has been happening over a number of years and has helped to make the intangible tangible. Economics, sociology, and law all have their part to play. To prove this point, OUP’s own recently launched journal, Oxford Open Climate Change, welcomes submissions on the physical and biogeochemical aspects of climate change, its social impact and response assessments, its economic, health, politics, and governance impacts, and possible natural or technical solutions. In taking this broad approach, the journal aims to remove siloes from the research on climate change and disseminate findings across traditional fields to support the work of global scholars in tackling the climate crisis.

Looking at our experience of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the huge challenges that we know lie ahead of us, we can surely now see how vital it is to move past the entrenched opposition between SHAPE and STEM to a place where each enhances and supports the other.

Jacqueline Norton, Head of Acquisition - Humanities, Academic division