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18 Jul 2022
Humanities In the Press
By SHAPE Futures

Taking SHAPE: What does SHAPE mean for Australian researchers?

by Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh.

We have all heard of STEM (meaning Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or STEAM (STEM with the addition of Arts). But have you heard of SHAPE? 

In one sense, SHAPE is just a new acronym to express something we are all familiar with: Humanities, Social Sciences and the Arts. But in another sense, SHAPE signals an, arguably much needed, rebranding and revitalisation for a range of important disciplines.

In this post we consider what SHAPE means and how it could be a force for Australian early- and mid-career researchers (EMCRs). 

What is SHAPE?

Whether or not you are familiar with or understand ‘SHAPE’, if you are reading this there is a good chance that your work or research contributes to the field. 

SHAPE is the new collective name for the complementary disciplines which concern Social Sciences, Humanities, the Arts, People and the Environment. The SHAPE initiative began in 2020 in the UK, as a joint undertaking by leading academic institutions: The British Academy, Arts Council, Academy of Social Sciences and London School of Economics. 

SHAPE disciplines include (but are certainly not limited to): 

  • society, politics and culture (including sociology, anthropology, geography, Indigenous studies, and other fields);
  • business and economics (including commerce, management, tourism and accounting);
  • history and philosophy;
  • education;
  • psychology and public health;
  • languages, linguistics and literatures;
  • the arts;
  • law;
  • as well as many other fields across the social sciences and humanities.


An understandable focus on technological and scientific developments and challenges has led to a strong appreciation for STEM subjects in the 21st century. Increasingly, however, many academic and business leaders want to better recognise and capture the value of SHAPE disciplines, both on their own and alongside STEM. But there is work to be done to make this happen. 

In Australia, for example, governments have increased their focus on (and funding for) vocational degrees, whilst qualifications in the humanities have declined and, at times, become a lamentable punchline

It is time for a leveling of the academic field, creating parity with STEM and emphasising the compatibility and interdependence of SHAPE and STEM. As Microsoft President Brad Smith and EVP of AI and Research Harry Shum wrote

As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.

Harry Shum – former Executive Vice President of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research Group

In the tech workplace and beyond, SHAPE-inspired skills are becoming more valuable. Specifically, SHAPE skills of analysis, interpretation, creation, communication and collaboration, encourage a deep and broad understanding of issues, and promote capacities to think critically, creatively and laterally. Together, these skills promote a better understanding of problems and, it follows, more effective solutions. 

Accepting the value of SHAPE skills in the modern workplace is not the same as saying SHAPE amounts to vocational training (though in some instances this will be the case). Rather, this demonstrates that pure research and critical thinking have far-reaching and perhaps unexpected value across the social, cultural and economic world.  

With these things in mind, SHAPE provides a simple and powerful idea to help us better tell our story. 

Why are the Humanities important?

Watch now

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Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian SHAPE EMCR Network recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the Traditional Owners and custodians of this land, and pays respect to Elders past and present. We acknowledge the continued cultural and spiritual connections to Country and community.