Funding research in Europe: New horizons for social sciences and humanities?

Europe of Knowledge |

Next week, September 23-24, the Lithuanian EU Presidency will host a conference on “Horizons on Social Sciences and Humanities” in Vilnius. While it is not the first gathering to discuss the role of Social Sciences and Humanities in Europe, this conference is certainly unique, for it combines several features. For the first time, a consultation process has been conducted in preparation of such a conference, collecting diverse positions and opinions within European Social Sciences and Humanities communities. A steering committee of eminent scholars has put together an ambitious program that combines general reflection with operative goals. Most significantly, European Commission officials will discuss on an equal footing with representatives from the Social Sciences and Humanities. But why is bringing those two groups on the table so important at this point?


As its title already indicates, the conference is closely related to the European Commission’s “Horizon 2020” research-funding programme. At stake here is how social sciences and humanities will be funded from 2014 onwards when “Horizon 2020” will supersede the Seventh Framework Programme. “Horizon 2020” claims to have some innovative, new features – one of which is, in the words of Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, “to work beyond the ‘silos’ of different disciplines”. This is to occur through an “integrated approach”, which will replace previously existing dedicated funding streams. What this means  exactly, however, remains to be determined.


For those working in the social sciences and humanities, the third pillar of “Horizon 2020” – the “Societal Challenges” Programme – is of particularly importance. It contains seven pre-defined challenges, ranging from “health, demographic change and well-being”, “food security”, “secure, clean and efficient energy”, “smart, green and integrated transport”, “climate action”, to “inclusive, innovative and reflective societies” and “secure societies”. It would hardly be surprising for this audience that social sciences and the humanities have a lot to contribute to addressing these challenges. But many policy-makers still believe in a simplified model where scientific research results lead to a better society and more robust economy. This means that, in practice, dedicated programmes often fund solely natural sciences research and technological innovation. Such a lopsided understanding is problematic, simply because more scientific and technological innovation requires more social innovation, too.


Acknowledging the reciprocity of technological innovation and societal advancement, the Commissioner’s integrative approach stands in sharp contrast to this, and is therefore laudable. The conference concentrates primarily on implementation: How can integration of the Social Sciences and Humanities in each of the seven challenges be achieved? And, vice versa, what are specific requirements of the Social Sciences and Humanities in order to contribute in the best manner? Obviously, its representatives will have to be properly embedded in the process of defining the single funding programmes, as well as in the funding decisions. But furthermore, and more generally, scientists and scholars from all direction have to be willing to reach across the aisle. The “Societal Challenges” pillar constitutes an important funding channel for research in general – more than 28 Billion Euros over the next seven years. If integration is accomplished successfully under “Horizon 2020”, it might also serve as a future prototype for how to best organize research funding on specific societal topics in European countries.


Reflections on the progress and outcomes of this meeting will be featured on the homepage of the European Research Area CRN and ‘Ideas on Europe’.


Dr. Thomas König is an assistant to the Conference Steering Committee and Scientific Associate to Prof. Helga Nowotny.