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Full speed ahead

Science Europe, a group of national research organisations and funders, celebrated its first anniversary in November. Catie Lichten caught up with the group’s president Paul Boyle at the birthday party, to find out how the organisation is finding its feet.

One of the first goals of Science Europe was to put together scientific committees. How is this going?

They are mostly established now. We have six committees in different areas of science, including humanities, social science, medical science and so on. All the chairmen and chairwomen are in place, and most of the committees are fully formed. They will probably start their work very early in 2013.

And who sits on the six committees?

The strategy from the beginning was that we wanted the best experts, to make sure that we really had the voice of science—the strongest voices from the scientific community that we could get. But we also tried to have some sort of balance, for example, from a gender perspective. We’ve ended up with women on all of our committees, but we would always hope for more women.

Now that you are established, with 51 member organisations from across Europe, what’s next?

We’ve launched a position statement on the budget for Horizon 2020, and we have three or four more in preparation—for instance on Horizon 2020 more generally, and on the way social sciences and humanities need to be embedded in Horizon 2020. We are also talking about quite specific statements in other areas, for example the discussions around EU regulation of personal data and how that should be managed. Research integrity is another area.

Science Europe has put out a position statement in support of the European Research Area, saying it disagrees with the Commission’s aim to complete it by 2014. Could you explain why?

The ERA is a dynamic, evolving, flexible set of arrangements between a range of agencies to encourage collaboration and mobility within Europe. To work out what it would mean to complete this by the end of 2013 would be challenging in itself, but our view is that we should be more ambitious than that. There should be a whole series of new mechanisms that would be invented, or encouraged, beyond 2014.

What will go into your next position statement on incorporating social sciences and humanities in Horizon 2020?

We will try to put forward some practical steps on how the Commission and others can think about embedding social science and humanities in all the societal challenges. While the Commission and many scientists agree this is something that needs to be done, we haven’t been as successful in the past as we might have been.

So what do you think needs to be done?

For example, when we talk about societal challenges, let us make sure that social sciences and humanities experts are involved in those early discussions. Let’s not bring them in at a later stage, let’s make sure they’re involved from the start in the work programme, the talks, and the debates within the member states about what work needs to be done. We think that having interdisciplinary groups and defining the questions that are important within each of these societal challenges will be one way to make real progress.

Do you think social sciences and humanities deserve a bigger chunk of funding?

We’re not pressing for a bigger piece of the financial pie for social science per se. What we’re arguing is that we need to put the money in the right places. I would be very disappointed if a whole range of social sciences didn’t get funded through Horizon 2020. There’s a range of questions that social sciences and humanities research can really contribute to, so I think we need to help the Commission make the most of this. One of the things we will recommend is that there are certain social science or humanities questions that are important across the whole set of societal challenges, such as behavioural change, and these must be addressed throughout.

On Horizon 2020 more generally, do you have a message to the politicians debating its future?

Yes, whatever the budget is for Europe as a whole, whether that’s higher or lower than people want, we would hope that the budget for science is protected. We recognise this will be difficult, but our view is if we are going to bring a number of countries in Europe out of recession, spending on science is a good way to do that.

Paul Boyle

• 1991: Social science PhD on human migration, Lancaster University

• 1999: Appointed professor of human geography, University of St Andrews

• 2007-09: President, British Society for Population Studies

• 2009: European Science Foundation adviser on social sciences

• 2010: Chief executive of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council

• 2011: President of Science Europe