Declaration urges focus on social sciences, humanities

A landmark declaration expected to help shape the future of European research policy was handed to Lithuania's Minister of Education and Science Dainius Pavalkis at the conclusion of an international conference on “Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities” last month.

The congress, which was held at Mykolas Romeris University on 23-24 September, was attended by European researchers, university leaders, policy-makers, business people, and representatives from NGOs and civil society groups.

The Vilnius Declaration is aimed at cementing the foundation for integrating social sciences and humanities into Societal Challenges – the third pillar of the next European Union research programme, Horizon 2020.

It comes hard on the heels of a Europe-wide call for greater inclusion of social sciences and humanities in the Horizon 2020 programme, amid concerns that it is too focused on sciences. The consensus is that while scientific advances are crucial to solving the world's problems, the large challenges require a multidisciplinary approach and understanding of societies.

According to the declaration, world-class European social sciences and humanities are critical for generating knowledge about the dynamic changes transforming societies. Their integration with other sciences would broaden understanding and uptake of innovation.

The declaration

The declaration said Europe would benefit from wise investment in research and innovation, and social sciences and humanities “were ready to contribute”. If research was to serve society, a resilient partnership with all relevant actors was required, and different perspectives would offer critical insights to help achieve the benefits of innovation.

It said that innovation involved change in organisations and institutions as well as technologies, and was driven not only by technological advances but also by societal expectations, values and demands.

Using the range of knowledge, capabilities, skills and experiences available in the social sciences and humanities would thus enable innovation to become embedded in society, and was also necessary to realise the policy aims predefined in the ‘societal challenges’.

Listed in the declaration were several conditions for the successful integration of social sciences and humanities into Horizon 2020.

Effective collaboration was essential, and the working conditions of all research partners should be carefully considered from the beginning and appropriately aligned for linkages across different disciplines and research fields.

This would include adequate organisational and infrastructural arrangements, as well as ties to other stakeholders in civil society and business. Budgetary provisions would also have to be appropriate to achieve this goal.

“Integrating the social sciences and humanities with the natural and technical sciences must begin with fitting approaches in postgraduate education and training,” said the document.

Innovative curricula fostered a deepened understanding of the value of different disciplinary approaches, and how they related to real world problems. And fostering the reflective capacity of society was crucial for sustaining democracy.

Horizon 2020

Since 1984, the European Commission has produced seven funding framework programmes, which ran for five- or seven-year periods. Horizon 2020 will be the eighth, and will channel some €70 billion (US$95 billion) into research over the next seven years.

“Horizon 2020 is all about helping a wide range of different research and innovation actors to make a difference to our economy and society,” said Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European commissioner for research, innovation and science at a recent trade meeting in Germany.

“At its heart is the idea that we cannot build long-term sustainable growth without improving our research and innovation performance in Europe. That is what Horizon 2020 is all about.”