Humanities research vital to tackling societal challenges

“Humanities research is an important piece in the puzzle towards new solutions to the grand societal challenges. All professional skills, including the humanities, have to come into play if we are to have a stronger society when this decade is through.”

This is the conclusion of the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM), which has 50,000 members, in a new report titled Change and Cohesion towards 2030: Humanistic initiatives.

DM President Camilla Gregersen told University World News: “In my opinion, we have a lot to learn from the Norwegian approach to humanities in terms of the fundamental understanding of what this science can do, and not least how we exploit its potential in the service of society.”

She explained that the Norwegian government has “systematically commissioned expert committees to review how the humanities can be strengthened, both within higher education and in research.

Notably, she said, the raising of the Research Council of Norway (RCN) portfolio allocated to the humanities from 3% to 5% of the total RCN budget for research was a step in the right direction.

“As I see it, we should adopt the Norwegian strategy. We must get started right away,” Gregersen said.

Strengthening preparedness

In the report, DM asked 10 highly qualified experts in the humanities to write 10 essays discussing how to strengthen both citizens’ and society’s preparedness to meet the grand challenges they face.

“This we have done to create greater respect for the humanities and to make clear that knowledge from the humanities is to be included” when these challenges are dealt with so that societal cohesion is secured, the report said.

Change and Cohesion towards 2030: Humanistic initiatives discusses how important it is to include humanities scholars in these discussions on seven thematic areas:

• Future climate solutions;
• Culture and unity towards the grand challenges;
• Satisfaction and technology in higher education;
• Democratic values and digitalisation;
• Family welfare and gender equality;
• Better health communication and greater equality;
• Active intervention against religious polarisation.

In one example, David Budtz Pedersen, professor of impact studies and science communication and director of the Humanomics Research Centre at Aalborg University Copenhagen, who is author of The Fight for the Disciplines and Mapping Frontier Research in the Humanities (2017), writes an essay titled: “It is mandatory to give the humanistic sciences a more prominent role in the fight against climate changes.”

He writes: “With the present prognoses for the global climate it is decisive to think through the role of research, education and innovation. Without humanities competence, the development will have dramatic consequences for democracy.

“Most public decision-makers are indoctrinated with a blind belief that the economy and the market are the most suitable tools for making prognoses for rational behaviour.But the truth is that democracy is a much stronger mechanism for creating sustainable and responsible changes.

“The Scandinavian model is, together with our best engineers and humanities scholars, the key to changes.”

Humanities in an economic straitjacket

The DM report was published in late January, only a month after Forskerforum – the Danish researchers’ magazine – ran a front-page headline saying: “This is how the humanities are starved out”.

Olav W Bertelsen, chairperson of the university division of the DM, wrote: “The reason for the unacceptable working conditions continuing is simply that the humanities are lacking money.”

Forskerforum wrote: “The politicians have placed the humanities in an economic straitjacket which it is impossible to escape from.”

The magazine cited “low governmental support, the dimensioning of higher education, the 2% cut in the public budget and too little external funding” as contributing factors.

At the same time, “humanities bashing” had become a people’s sport used by politicians and opinion leaders, Forskerforum said.

Gregersen told University World News: “We are facing complex changes in our society in the years to come and, undoubtedly, the solutions lie between the concrete new discoveries and the humanities’ capability of adjusting people to new times.

“In DM, we work continuously on strengthening the humanities in terms of both research and education. Sadly, the humanistic field is under-prioritised and this area must be given more resources.”

However, she warned, this could not be allowed to lead to fewer resources being allocated to other research areas.

“We need to prioritise all the sciences when facing the great challenges of the future,” she added.

Politicians’ wake-up call

University World News asked Pedersen what must happen in Denmark for the politicians to understand the value of the humanities and stop the yearly deterioration in their funding.

He said: “Policy-makers love simple answers to complex problems. But today’s challenges need more than simple answers.

“For example, the current pandemic is as much a social, cultural and communication crisis as it is a health crisis.

“Over the past year, it has become increasingly clear that the contribution of humanities and social sciences needs to be part of the equation. Understanding behavioural change and devising trustworthy communication are essential for effective interventions.”

He said now was the time to convince policy-makers that the humanities are making important contributions to society, democracy and policy-making across complex challenges such as health, climate, security, education, digitalisation and democracy.

“And it is time to remind humanities scholars about their role, not only as custodians of wisdom but as knowledge brokers.

“More work needs to be done by the humanities to develop translational research, enact partnerships with society and industry, and highlight the impact generated in research and education,” he said.

He noted that the world’s most renowned universities, such as Stanford and Berkeley in the United States or KTH in Stockholm, Sweden, have established ambitious cross-disciplinary institutes and initiatives, which include the humanities as an essential component.

“The development of human-centric artificial intelligence, the emergence of environmental humanities, and the necessity to include human psychology and anthropology in the medical sciences, are examples Danish policy-makers should study in detail,” he said.

Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, told University World News: “We need a broad take on science in Denmark and we cannot do without the insights of the humanities.

“For instance, when we look at the digital agenda, artificial intelligence and increasing interconnectedness of devices and humans, all these new technologies and trends require a deeper understanding of ourselves as humans and our culture. It requires human interpretation and adaption.

“The same holds true for the issues of global warming and environmental change. These challenges cannot be solved without insights from the humanities.”