At OUP, we are the largest university press publisher of SHAPE (Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy) disciplines. Back in 2021, we joined the SHAPE initiative along with the British Academy, LSE, the Arts Council, and other key partners to show our support and advocacy for these vitally important areas of research and scholarship.
We recently caught up with Dr Molly Morgan Jones, Director of Policy at the British Academy, to find out more about the future of the programme and to hear why she believes SHAPE must be considered in alignment with STEM to further society.
What is your role at the British Academy and your involvement in SHAPE?
I head up the Academy’s policy programmes. Through our policy work, we mobilise SHAPE research from across the sector and bring rigorous, authoritative, and independent perspectives to the major policy challenges facing us globally, nationally, and locally—be it reaching our net zero targets or how to harness the power of all disciplines to achieve economic growth. I was involved early on in SHAPE, which was borne from a group of us who wanted to try to develop a stronger and more coherent narrative for the disciplines at a time when there was increased negative rhetoric (the phrase “dead-end” courses used by some in Government at the time) and what seemed to be a low understanding of the contribution of our disciplines to the major societal and economic challenges of the day.
This is all despite our services-driven economy here in the UK and the ever-growing success of industries such as the creative sector. It seemed “science” was increasingly used in a narrow sense and however much we were reassured it was science in the German sense of wissenschaft, it was evident that science was increasingly becoming the shorthand for STEM and we wanted to try to change that in a positive way.
“For me, the principles of SHAPE and STEM working together to foster deeper meaning and understanding for society and for human culture are just in my DNA.”
Why did the British Academy launch the SHAPE initiative and why does it continue to support SHAPE?
We hadn’t intended to develop an acronym but felt that it seemed to work when the idea came to us—it’s a verb and a noun so wonderfully flexible and reflects what we do. It’s an inspiring word, more so than previous efforts such as HASS, SSAH, or STEAM where Arts is just shoe-horned in the middle. And it complements STEM and I think the two together paint a wonderful picture of how they can both work so nicely together, which is exactly what the disciplines do every day out in the world. It also enables storytelling, which is important for our disciplines as so often the data doesn’t tell the full picture.
For example, the data that shows where graduates end up after leaving university doesn’t show that over time SHAPE graduates tend to be able to be more flexible and resilient in their career choices in response to a dynamic economy. It also doesn’t show that out of the 10 fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, eight employ more SHAPE graduates than STEM. Our new SHAPE Skills at Work report brings this data to life and features a series of case studies of how graduates with a SHAPE degree are adding value to society and different sectors in a variety of ways.
What are your plans to further activate the initiative? How do you envision organizations such as OUP continuing to support SHAPE?
The acronym is really the vehicle—what is crucial is getting the underpinning evidence base right and the overall narrative. That’s where my team come in. We have launched and will be further developing the SHAPE Observatory over the course of this year. Through this evidence hub, we will help to play a co-ordinating role in gathering the evidence and narratives and monitoring the health of the disciplines, making this available for others to use. We are also working on a more proactive stream of work that we are bringing together under the banner of a SHAPE Vision for 2030. With programmes of work looking at the people, principles, and place-based aspects of the research and higher education system, we hope to bring all of this together to help co-create a more strategic vision for the role of our subjects in society and their place in the research and innovation ecosystem.
The Academy is also using SHAPE now as the default term for our disciplines in the hope that others will do so too. We were pleased that SHAPE got its first mention in parliament last year and has its own Wikipedia page. Anyone and everyone should use the name. No one owns it.
“We want everyone in the community to feel they can use SHAPE in ways that work for them to celebrate and champion our subjects.”
As the largest university press publisher of SHAPE disciplines and one of the founding signatories, we are of course pleased to have OUP onboard not only through the promotion of the initiative but through real action in publishing cutting-edge research in the humanities and social sciences. We want everyone in the community to feel they can use SHAPE in ways that work for them to celebrate and champion our subjects.
Could you tell us in your own words why you think SHAPE subjects are important and what the initiative means to you personally?
I did a biology degree at university and although I love the actual science, I have always been more drawn to understanding how science interacts with society in wider ways. For me, the principles of SHAPE and STEM working together to foster deeper meaning and understanding for society and for human culture are just in my DNA, so to speak. It’s part of how I have always approached my own learning, my own thinking, and my own career. We need engineers to build a bridge, but why are we building a bridge in the first place? To connect ourselves as human beings. Economic growth and prosperity need all the disciplines working together and if we are successful in getting this recognised in policy audiences and in the sector, I think we will be all the stronger for it.