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The Commission seems unwilling to give social science its due place in Horizon 2020

It is sometimes hard to discern what the Commission has in mind when it talks about ‘innovation’ as part of its research and innovation policy, embodied by its proposal for Horizon 2020. But one concrete manifestation of this new emphasis has been a crude effort, in the original proposal, to kick the social sciences and the humanities out of the tent.

Since the Horizon 2020 proposal was published last November, social sciences lobby groups—and more neutral observers, such as the European Science Foundation—have been complaining loudly that the Commission’s organisation of research to confront ‘grand challenges’, such as health and climate change, threatens to undermine support for social sciences research.

On 31 May, the Competitiveness Council endorsed this objection, and suggested that the grand challenge called Inclusive, Innovative and Secure Societies should be split into two. One challenge would address societal issues directly and another would deal with security, leading some observers to caution that such a solution favours more security-focused or technology-led answers to societal challenges.

Given that European social scientists can claim genuinely global leadership in a number of sub-disciplines, it is particularly unfortunate that the Commission appears, in its first effort at framing Horizon 2020, to have hit upon a formula that would marginalise their role.

The position of the Council of Ministers makes it likely some of the damage will be repaired—although sceptics will be aware that it will be the Commission, not the council, who will actually implement Horizon 2020. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the research commissioner, has repeatedly pledged fealty to the social sciences and the humanities. It would be more reassuring if her speeches, and other Commission statements, made it clear that the Innovation Union will nurture social, as well as technical, innovation.

In this issue, Claudia Neubauer of the Paris-based Fondation Sciences Citoyennes warns that research into the relationship between science and society is getting especially short shrift from the current Horizon 2020 proposal. It is indeed the case that some projects that have been supported under the “science in society” rubric do little more than provide a fig leaf of societal awareness for larger research programmes in the hard sciences. But that observation makes the case for tougher quality control, not for marginalisation.

In 1969, Robert Wilson, the first director of FermiLab in Chicago, was asked by a Congressional committee what a particle accelerator could do to defend the United States. He famously responded that it “had nothing to do with defending our country—except to make it worth defending”.

The social sciences have, as it happens, a great deal to contribute in addressing the grand challenges facing Europe in the 21st century. But Horizon 2020’s architects should also be made aware of the fact that the very essence of the European research system—in which the EU plays an important role—is an appropriate balance between the arts, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering.