Credit Vidūnas Gelumbauskas, Mykolas Romeris University

Time for the research agenda to account for its societal context

When it comes to the success of innovation, societal context and individual behaviour matter as much as technological advancement. The European Commission has the ambition to integrate of the social sciences and humanities (SSH) into the upcoming research framework programme, Horizon 2020 (H2020). This is foreseen particularly for the seven pillars of the Societal Challenges. However, this integration may not be that straightforward.

Several organisations, such as the League of European Research Universities (LERU), Science Europe, and Euroscience, gathered their views on how to proceed for the integration of the SSH into H2020, which resulted in the Vilnius Declaration, at the Lithuanian EU Presidency conference Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities, last September.

Specifically, this declaration recommends defining research problems in novel ways. It also suggests carefully considering the working conditions of all research partners and setting up efficient collaboration across different disciplines and research fields. It also encourages fostering interdisciplinary training and research as well as connecting social values and research evaluation.

Redefining priority allocation

The declaration, however, is merely a statement of intent. The success of the proposed approach hinges, first, on precisely defining the narrow questions based on which research will then be commissioned. This will be done in a rather bureaucratic process. The success of integration depends on the open mindedness of programme committees members—who are ministry representatives from the Member States—towards the social sciences and humanities. It remains unclear how this will be achieved for each of the seven priorities of the Societal Challenges.

This uncertainty is all the more problematic because the process of setting up the work programme for 2014-2015 is already well under way. It appears that nothing has changed, so far, despite the rhetoric in favour of SSH integration. The shadow programme committees in charge of the first phase are composed in the same way as for the previous framework programme.

Learning curve for the social sciences and humanities

The greatest challenge of SSH integration lies with the social sciences and humanities themselves. Indeed, the SSH only have limited resources for making their case at European level. There are many associations and learned societies. But they have no unified voice speaking for the entire community.

What is more, the SSH community has a steep learning curve ahead. It appears to have no common knowledge of the internal processes of science funding decision-making at EU level. Finally, it will be crucial to establish good relations between SSH and all other fields of science to implement the desired research practices. This means that both sides will have to overcome their widespread prejudices against each other.

Crucial questions remain opaque at this stage. These relate to the composition of review panels for the H2020 challenges, the eligibility criteria and formal application requirements, and the provisions to foster collaboration across disciplinary boundaries. The SSH community will have to be vigilant over the coming weeks to point to the weaknesses of the bureaucratic process and of the decision making structures.

What lies ahead?

The ambition of Horizon 2020 is not only to tackle societal challenges, but also to transform the traditional ways of conducting research in Europe. It remains to be seen whether this will happen in a manner that benefits research as well as society.

For the integration to be a success, the continued engagement of the SSH community is required. Otherwise, it will remain a mere rhetorical fixture. Considering that research funding at European level nowadays in many respects has grown into the de-facto regulation of research themes for research policies in the member states, the stakes are high to make this policy a successful one.

Featured image credit: Vidūnas Gelumbauskas, Mykolas Romeris University. Photo of EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, taken at the recent Vilnius conference Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities.

Thomas König

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One thought on “Time for the research agenda to account for its societal context”

  1. Dear,

    I think we need a ‘platform’, ‘procedure’–and some resources–to create research agenda’s and research projects in a transdisciplinary way. This implies that persoons/citizens/organisations who are confronted with an urgent societal challenge can post the challenge somewhere on the web and that they, via an interactive–virtually and in physical reality–procedure, work together with all kinds of –theoretical and practical–‘experts’ in order to create clarity with regard to the problem definition, the needs for knowledge and skills, and the architecture of an appropriate research project. So, in case someone would like and sees opportunities to collaborate and perform some action research in order to sharpen and realise this idea of ‘interactively defining sustainability research’, I would be pleased to get in contact.

    Kind regards,