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Social sciences and humanities can learn from Frameworks past

The EU wants Horizon 2020’s research into societal challenges to be truly interdisciplinary. Andrew Sors look at what worked in previous programmes, and what needs to change.

Throughout the Framework programmes, there has been debate about the social sciences and humanities: whether there should be a theme dedicated to them, how to integrate them into collaborative work on societal challenges and how much money to spend on them. So the broad consensus that these disciplines are essential to attaining Horizon 2020’s objectives is a significant achievement.

Research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s declaration in Vilnius that “We will…do things differently now” was forthright and brave. It was also a challenge to programme managers and researchers alike. Those deciding on future Framework programmes will be asking whether this different way of doing things has helped to address real-world problems.

How then can things be done differently in Horizon 2020? The past holds some clues.

Starting with Framework 4, each programme has included one collaborative research theme led by social science; each time with a different title. In Framework programmes 4 and 5 the titles signalled a theme dedicated to social science, and in Framework 7 the humanities were also specifically mentioned. In contrast, the title of the equivalent research theme in Framework 6 signalled a challenge-driven theme, as does the title in Horizon 2020. But, regardless of the title and whether it implies a challenge-based or discipline-based approach, the research topics covered have remained fairly similar, including issues such as social exclusion, identity, migration and employment.

In Frameworks 6 and 7, a particular effort was made to integrate the social sciences and humanities into the other societal research challenges. As Horizon 2020’s seven societal challenges are broadly similar to the seven priority areas of Framework 6 and the nine cooperation themes of Framework 7, attempts to ensure integration will encounter similar opportunities and barriers.

With researchers leading the drive for integration, it is understandable that the focus of attention is at the level of individual research projects, where researchers are most fully engaged. Nevertheless, the scope for integration within projects is partly predetermined by the architecture and content of the Framework programme as a whole. One determinant is how the broad spectrum of societal, economic and environmental issues is broken down into collaborative research challenges. In Horizon 2020 and its predecessors, this breakdown broadly corresponds to domains of public policy. But the social sciences and humanities are not compartmentalised in this way, which creates obstacles to their full participation.

Past Framework programmes were inhospitable to proposals beyond the scope of any single challenge or theme. Had the boundaries between the research areas been more porous, it might have encouraged cross-challenge projects better aligned with how citizens and communities experience the world. A few truly inter-
disciplinary, people-focused projects could act as flagships for putting the social sciences and humanities on a more equal footing with the natural sciences.

There has been undoubted progress in including societal perspectives in the formulation of research topics, but in many cases the projects actually funded do not address all the research questions in a particular topic. Grouping funded projects into clusters can enhance the socioeconomic understanding derived from them as a whole and can improve the evidence base for policies. For example, the projects funded in Framework 6’s priority area on Citizens and Governance in a Knowledge-based Society were clustered retrospectively into 21 domains such as citizenship, quality of work and Europe in the world.

Although the growing collaboration between the social and natural sciences has led to emerging research fields such as digital humanities, personalised healthcare and climate change adaptation, collaboration within the social sciences and humanities still encounters numerous obstacles.

Grand societal challenges carry high stakes; they are complex and surrounded by uncertainty. They are not solved by disciplines, and increasingly not by science, alone. But our capacity to tackle them is growing. Scientists and engineers are more open to collaborating with colleagues in the social sciences and humanities, and the engagement of these disciplines in relation to Horizon 2020 is unprecedented. There are many reasons to look forward with confidence—with an occasional backward glance for a reality check.

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Andrew Sors is head of the Brussels office of the EuroTech Universities Alliance. He led the social sciences and humanities unit at DG Research from 1999 to 2005 and left the European Commission in 2008.