Research ministers demand key role for social sciences in Horizon 2020

Europe’s research ministers have voiced concern that social sciences and humanities should be given a more prominent role in Horizon 2020, the next European Union framework programme for 2014-20.

The fears already expressed by academics were reflected in discussions between research ministers from European Union member states in Brussels last week.

Horizon 2020 is the world’s largest publicly-financed research programme, for which the European Commission has proposed a budget of EUR80 billion, down from the EUR100 billion tabled by the European Parliament.

Ministers endorsed the commission proposal, but also addressed two key questions posed by the Danish presidency of the EU: how can social sciences and humanities be strengthened; and how should participation of small and medium enterprises be further enhanced, notably through simplifying of administrative procedures?

Nils Agerhus, spokesperson for the Danish presidency, told University World News: “The concern as to whether the role of social science and humanities will be adequately reflected in the tackling of the grand societal challenges was addressed by several delegations.

“The Danish presidency has taken note of this and will take this into account in the negotiations of the proposal in the following months.”

Research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn acknowledged that the real battle would be with finance ministers – research ministers were naturally in favour of investment in research and innovation. She has already held discussions with Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister.

“The social sciences and humanities have a vitally important role in all challenges in Horizon 2020,” Geoghegan-Quinn said. “They will be embedded as an integral part of all activities, working beyond ‘the silos of distinct discipline’.”

She added that internationalisation and global collaboration in research would be the backbone of Horizon 2020, and that the commission would produce a communication on internationalisation by the spring.

Peter Honeth, Sweden’s State Secretary for Research, said that the interface between humanities, social sciences and environmental research had to be better structured in Horizon 2020. He called for an ongoing evaluation mechanism to be used during the operational phase of the new programme, to monitor if integration of social sciences and humanities really is taking place.

He also said there are many areas of Vision Europe 2020 – Europe’s growth strategy – that urgently need to be addressed by research in the social sciences and humanities, such as European integration and identity, economic growth, and education and innovation.

Gabi Lombardo and Jon Deer, researchers at the London School of Economics, reported in ResearchEurope that 40 European science organisations, research consortia and learned societies met in Amsterdam in December 2011, and established the European Alliance for Social Sciences and Humanities (EASH).

They said the alliance would provide “a single voice for the strategic promotion of social sciences and humanities research”, offering a platform for interaction across Europe and strengthening the capacity of social sciences and humanities research communities to engage in policy discussions.

EASH members have endorsed an open letter to Geoghegan-Quinn, so far signed by some 25,000 academics, calling for a large research programme centred on social sciences and humanities to tackle the ‘grand societal challenges’.

Lisbeth Söderqvist, research officer at the Swedish Science Council, told University World News she wanted the commission to create a structure that would enable the social sciences and humanities to respond to challenges on transport, climate, security and so on by having experts representing the disciplines on every programme committee.

“If not, I fear it won't be [addressing grand] challenges, only subjects such as in FP7,” she said.

The Danish presidency aims to achieve agreement on the content of Horizon 2020 by May this year at the latest.

Morten Østergaard, Denmark’s minister of science and innovation, who chaired the Brussels meeting, said Horizon 2020 would ensure a closer link between research and innovation, while also ensuring that new research results will be translated to marketable solutions to a greater extent.

“We are in the middle of an economic crisis and unemployment is rife – not least among young Europeans. The programme therefore is not just about research, but about creating future jobs for our young people. We must find a balance and a result that all countries can be satisfied with, without compromising our ambitions to encourage top quality research,” he said.