Integrating Social Sciences and Humanities in Horizon 2020 Societal Challenges: Will it work?

Europe of Knowledge |

Reports from various parts of Europe confirm urgency of the topics put forward by the conference “Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities” held last week 23-24 September 2013 in Vilnius under the Lithuanian EU Presidency. On twitter alone, the conference hashtag #horizonsSSH was used more than 600 times. The conference was widely covered in traditional and new media (see Guardian, Der Standard, Liberation, lzinios, Net4Society, Research Europe, Science Guide, LSEImpactBlog, University World News, Research Europe, Euroscientist, Social Epistemology Review and Reply and Hypothèses). In preparation for the conference, a number of stakeholder organizations such as the League of European Research Universities LERU and Science Europe published dedicated reports on contribution of social sciences and humanities (SSH) to solving societal challenges.


The conference highlighted once more that world-class European SSH are indispensable in generating knowledge about the dynamic changes that transform our societies. They form the basis of the Horizon 2020 Societal Challenges Pillar and their integration with other sciences will broaden our understanding of innovation, driven not only by technological advances, but also by societal expectations, values and demands. The Vilnius Declaration nicely elaborates crucial principles that form the basis for the integration of the SSH in Horizon 2020: defining research problems in novel ways; carefully considering the working conditions of all research partners and setting up efficient collaboration across different disciplines and research fields; fostering interdisciplinary training and research; and connecting social values and research evaluation.


However, such principles also reveal some concerns. One is, that the rhetoric of “integrating” the SSH into the “Societal Challenges”, predefined by European Commission (EC), European Council and the European Parliament, is not (yet?) matched by the institutional means to realize this goal. The Commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, as well as General Director Robert-Jan Smits both emphasized their good will; but the EC Directorate General (DG) Research and Innovation alone consists of many levels of decision-making (and there are also several other DGs involved). It turned out also that, in many respects, the course of Horizon 2020 is already set for the upcoming two years, without any real change to the procedures or the group of persons involved.


Considering those facts, it became very clear during the conference that “integrating SSH”, despite being a noble goal, is also a risky undertaking. It is rhetorically attractive to policy makers, while its success depends on two crucial aspects. One is the permissiveness of the responsible units within the European Commission that are tasked to carry out the program. This often breaks down to personalities. We may expect very different results from different EC bureaucratic units (i.e., concerning different challenges), pending on the willingness to really integrate representatives of the SSH communities. The other is the persistence of getting involved by people who represent those SSH communities. Continued representation requires structures and people with authority to speak for the communities. Currently, there is neither a robust structure established at European level, nor are there people in view who would preside over such a structure.


After the conference, the question “what follows?” is more crucial than anything else. The Vilnius Declaration is clearly a sign to policy makers that the SSH communities are ready to take up the challenge. But the lack of structural and ideational premises makes it difficult to plan and design contributions. The conference report – currently under preparation and expected to be published in December 2013 – will point out upcoming tasks and the willingness to take up and implement those tasks. From a researcher’s perspective, of course, what is happening right now is thrilling: Can a large, but diversely organized and widely under-informed field such as SSH come at grips with research policy in relatively short time? Will community based efforts to represent SSH lead to emergence of new structures (or revival of existing ones) in order to take action? Does integration remain superficial policy rhetoric (the “ritualisation trap”), or can real change be achieved? The next weeks, months and years will tell. However the message still echoing from the conference is clear: “Take the lead.”


Conference Website

Twitter hashtag: #horizonsSSH

Coming Events: “Achieving Impact: Socio-Economic Sciences and Humanities in Horizon 2020” Feb 26-27, 2014, Athens, Greece


Dr. Thomas König and Dr. Katja Mayer are assistants to the Conference Steering Committee.