Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Welcome talk to new DAH students

I want to congratulate all of you students who have competed hard to win your studentships and can now look forward to four intense, laborious and wonderful years. Some of you have come from countries far away on the globe and you have only just registered in Galway, Maynooth, Cork or here at Trinity. Others of you have not had to move country but still maybe have had to move to a new city. I am sure you have all gone through a trying time to get yourself sorted in no time to get ready for your studies. Well done to you all.
When we sent out the call for applications in the spring there was tremendous interest. We received hundreds of applications, and you can all be proud to have been selected. We have had selection committees at all universities to pick the best, and for some of you the wait was long because the committees wanted to do a thorough job. I hope the short time between you knew of your success and today was enough to get you prepared for a learning experience which will be as rewarding as it will be demanding.
We selected you because of your excellent results in your previous studies and because you proposed interesting research projects. You are 45 in all, 18 at TCD, 9 in UCC, 12 in Galway and 6 in Maynooth. In short we selected you because we trust that you will all seize the opportunities and grow with the challenges. But we did not select you because you already know exactly what it takes to be an outstanding PhD candidate in digital arts or humanities. Some of you have limited experience of digital technologies, some of you have an excellent technological background but a limited experience of the arts or humanities. All of you will be challenged by the breadth and depth of interdisciplinary work. But in four years’ time you will be the first purpose-trained generation of digital scholars in the field of arts and humanities in Ireland and indeed some of the first in the world.
DAH is a unique programme not just in Ireland but in the world. It is the largest ever single undertaking to train a new generation of digital scholars in the arts and humanities. DAH has the potential to provide for the Irish and international labour market a wholly new group of people who are uniquely prepared to take on the big challenges and opportunities of making the analogue world of arts and humanities, of drama, film, music, literature, languages, history, religions and philosophy meet with the digital technologies. We all know of the enormous potential of making these worlds meet and I am sure Marie Wallace of IBM, one of our staunch supporters in the world of industry, will make that even clearer to us when she speaks in a little while. But before she does, let me just reveal a little bit about the background of how we came to be here today.
It is more than 2 ½ years ago that we began dreaming up a Structured PhD programme for Digital Arts and Humanities for Ireland. In addition to TCD, UCC, NUIG and NUIM, we are the RIA which provides backbone support, and two Ni Ireland partners, Queens and UU which will provide additional teaching and training opportunities. In the summer of 2009 we submitted a proposal for the Irish government’s Programme of Research in Third-Level Institutions, cycle V. The PRTLI grants have been crucial for Irish universities in the last ten years, they have provided much-needed core-funding to build Irish universities to the level of international quality which is needed for a knowledge society. The ambition and farsightedness of investments in the past ten years have changed Irish universities, first in the engineering and natural science domains but with the last couple of programmes, the arts and humanities have benefitted as well. The PRTLI IV cycle from 2007-2010 secured funding for research initiatives in all of our universities, and one striking expression of the level of ambition is the Trinity Long Room Hub which opened only last year. Some of you will be privileged to work here while others will enjoy the investments made elsewhere.
However, as you know, the financial turmoil, indeed disaster, of September 2008 changed everything in Ireland. In days, the state needed to bail out bankrupt financial institutions, and many of us feared that funding for the universities would not be sustained. Indeed we have suffered very serious cuts, and the worst is not over. By 2013 I understand that Trinity’s government funding will have been reduced by 40%. That is a serious challenge which is straining Irish universities and making many programmes go.
We feared of course that the next cycle of PRTLI would fall victim to the bad times but fortunately there is cross-party agreement that even in the worst of times there must be investment in research and education. The PRTLI funding is therefore continuing but with a strong focus on creation of the skills and innovations that will build jobs in the future.
When we put in pour application in July 2009, we were confident that the arts and humanities have a critical role to play also for the creation of future industries, welfare and jobs. But we were perhaps less confident that the government would share that vision. Some of us feared that the dramatic turn-around might bias all future funding towards the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Fortunately, we were wrong. After a long wait we learnt in the summer of 2010 that the international evaluation ranked our proposal top of all proposals for structured PhD programmes across all disciplines. Even better the government followed through on its promise to fund the best and awarded us the largest grant of all of 6.8 million euro. We had had even higher ambitions but still this was a fantastic result. And then came the traumatic autumn of last year, when Irish government bonds were reduced to junk status and finally the Irish state had to be bailed out by the ECB and EU. A hairshirt budget was introduced with promises of more pain to come. Once again we feared that we had won the competition but never see the funding.
Then came the wonderful news in February this year that despite all the misery the powers that be had agreed to let future investments in research go forward. It is only seven months since we got the go ahead for the funding, and the last few months have been very busy to get us all here today.
I told you of this background to give you a sense of the excitement, pride and fear that the partners behind the DAH consortium have shared. And also to let you know that there are people out there in the Irish society that look to us with great expectations and a sense that what is happening through the PRTLI investments may in the long run – not tomorrow but in some years’ time – prepare us for a smarter sounder economy.
I do not want to convey a simplistic sense of what the arts and humanities may contribute – you will not individually be weighed up against your potential contribution to the future economy. Far from it. But that is not to say that we should disregard the role of the arts and humanities for a better society, both in terms of economy and culture and welfare. Let me just give you one example, and I am sure you can all give me plenty. Every year half a million people visit Trinity to see the Book of Kells. This unique manuscript survived the dangers of fire by my ancestors the Vikings, and survived the dangers of seventeenth century civil war, to find a safe and tranquil home at Trinity thanks to one of the legends of modern humanity, Archbishop Ussher. It is thanks to people like Ussher that humanity will shine through even in the darkest nights and we cherish his memory at Trinity by having named the new library after him. The visitors to the Book of Kells will only get a glimpse of a couple of pages in a dimly-lit room fighting for space with other visitors. But now digitisation offers enormous new possibilities to let everyone have access to not only this but the many treasures of the trinity library. It is thanks to the Digital Resources and Information Section, which is housed in the bottom of this building, that Trinity now offers the general public access to this and many other valuable resources. Similarly the partner institutions are taking strides forward to provide access to Ireland’s rich heritage through digital arts and humanities. Such access is of tremendous importance to international culture and indeed to imagination and industry.
But digital humanities is much more than just enabling access to hidden treasures. More than a billion people have now access to the World Wide Web and their desire for content is insatiable. Access begets curiosity, and ever-increasing levels of education and a media industry hungry for images and stories mean that demand for the products of the arts and humanities have increased exponentially. We have support from industrial partners such as IBM, Microsoft, Intel and Google and Digital arts companies like Aers Electronica, Digital Art Centre, Digital Art Museum, Eyebeam, ZKM, and international partners such as Centre for Digital Humanities (UCL), Centre for History and New Media, CentreNet, DARIAH, Department of Digital Humanities (KCL), and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. We have strong interest from the national musems and galleries. Each of you of the DAH generation of digitally-trained scholars must seek your own way to best use and profit from the opportunities, not least with a view to your work placements in the third year.
At the heart of the arts and humanities is the desire to understand the world we live in, what motivates us as humans, and what are the consequences of our actions. It is a relentless curiosity and it takes us into the soul-searching and archive-mining, along paths that are long and winding, and sometimes without a single reference to anything that may be of value or importance to the modern world. But insight and perhaps truth does not come from accepting everything at face value, and basic research keeps asking questions till we come up with answers that for a time at least will satisfy our curiosity. We know that the best stories, the deepest insights often come from such serendipitous searches. Insight is golden, and we know when the ore has been struck. The DAH consortium exists to support that sometimes lonely search.
We also exist to help make sure that the world gets to know about the findings. Sometimes people in the arts and humanities, because of the many lonely hours spent in research, may believe that the world outside does not really care about their findings. That is an understandable but completely false perception. We all cherish a good story well told, and so much more when surprisingly it reveals something about ourselves. That is why we need to understand what made the Babylonians tick, we need to know how language may express and conceal our thoughts, that is why the construction industry invites philosophers to review their ethics, that is why the study of economic growth in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries won its historian a Nobel prize, that is why drawing humans in motion may win the artist-researcher an Oscar, and indeed that is why understanding religions may save the peace. In order to be an outstanding scholar of the Italian renaissance you need to study arcane belief-systems and languages but in the end we all become so much richer when the insights are shared. DAH exists to help share the insights, to open the university to the outside world, to facilitate the critical debate about past, present and future human choices. I wish you success, and as a professor trained in an analogue time I look forward to meeting each of you and learn from you of the digital future.

Winding back the ocean clock

A radio interview about how historians discover past oceans and how this can help us manage oceans in the future. http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/content/interviews/interview/1446/

Ignite – 5 minute talk about oceans past