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Obstacles to integration

Horizon 2020 aims to tackle grand societal challenges by bringing the natural and technical sciences together with the social sciences and humanities. But the European Commission will need to change its ways if this project is to succeed, say Thomas König and Katja Mayer.

When policymakers face a complex problem, they turn to research. They define the issue, invite applications and fund the best proposals. This is how some €28 billion will be spent through the Horizon 2020 programme in 2014-20, with the aim of tackling seven societal challenges ranging from health to transportation.

Such top-down research funding is an intricate business. It requires a defined question; a bureaucracy to run funding calls, review and payment; and researchers willing to do the work. Furthermore, in the societal challenges, the European Commission aims to transform how research is done by integrating the social sciences and humanities with the natural sciences and engineering.

Integration is a great idea. Clearly, innovation depends not only on technology and engineering but also on knowledge of societal developments and human behaviour. That’s why, on 24 September, research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn emphasised in a speech in Vilnius that “the social sciences and humanities are anchored at the heart of Horizon 2020”.

Geoghegan-Quinn was speaking at Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities, a conference organised by the Lithuanian Presidency of the Council of the EU. The Vilnius Declaration, which resulted from that meeting, sets out how to integrate the disciplines into Horizon 2020. It recommends defining research problems in novel ways; considering the working conditions of all partners and setting up efficient collaboration across disciplines; fostering interdisciplinary training and research; and connecting social values and research evaluation.

The declaration spells out what needs to be done and the benefits of doing it—namely, an understanding of innovation that is driven by societal values and demands as well as technological advances. But to make Horizon 2020’s integrative approach successful, the Commission must change the way it conducts research funding.

High-level political bargaining between the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament is almost finished. However, the research fields and questions are still to be defined. This will take place at the administrative level, mostly between Commission units, advisory groups and programme committees. Preparatory meetings are already being held in Brussels to discuss some aspects of the work programmes for 2014-15.

The first step to successful integration is to make sure that representatives of the social sciences and humanities are at preparatory meetings. The Commission has already promised that the disciplines will be represented in all advisory groups, but setting up those groups is an arcane business and the configuration of some is not promising. Programme committees, on the other hand, comprise representatives of each member state. From the outside at least, their composition seems much the same as for the previous Framework programme.

Crucial details for successful integration—such as the composition of review panels, eligibility criteria for grant applications and provisions for fostering interdisciplinary collaboration—remain obscure. The Commission should get the benefit of the doubt; as Geoghegan-Quinn admitted in Vilnius, “at the beginning, we might not get everything right”. But social sciences and humanities researchers must be ready to observe developments and point out where bureaucratic and procedural structures need to be adapted.

The biggest challenge to integration lies within the disciplines themselves. The social sciences and humanities have limited resources for making their case at European level, and no voice to speak for them as a whole. It sometimes appears that researchers have yet to grasp the importance of European research policies, although the Vilnius conference helped. They must learn how the EU makes research-funding decisions and how to get more involved in European funding programmes.

Good relations with the natural and technical sciences will be crucial—both sides must overcome their boundaries and prejudices. If the Commission is serious about integration, it must address social sciences and humanities researchers at Horizon 2020 kick-off events, and establish joint meeting and research platforms for each societal challenge.

Can Horizon 2020’s ambition to tackle societal challenges and transform European research be achieved in a way that benefits both research and society? Integration can only be a success with the continued engagement of the social sciences and humanities, as Geoghegan-Quinn said in Vilnius. Otherwise, the idea of integration will just be a rhetoric; a box to tick on applications. With European-level funding setting the themes for research policies in the member states, the stakes are high for successful integration—and uneasiness among researchers is growing.

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Thomas König and Katja Mayer work at the office of the president of the European Research Council, hosted by the Vienna Science and Technology Fund. Both assisted the steering committee of the Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities conference in Vilnius.