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The role of humanities and social sciences

Tackling tomorrow’s problems today is a key aim of Horizon 2020. The Societal Challenges pillar reflects the main priorities of the Europe 2020 strategy and the long-term difficulties facing European humanity.

One area that is often side-lined from mainstream research is humanities and social sciences. Originally envisaged to have its own pillar under Horizon 2020, the sector is now found within Societal Challenges. Dr Nina Kancewicz-Hoffman, senior science officer in humanities and social sciences at the European Science Foundation, provides her thoughts on how the disciplines will develop under Horizon 2020.

To what extent do you believe Horizon 2020 adequately addresses research into humanities and social sciences?

Formally, social sciences and humanities will play a key role in all the objectives in the Societal Challenges pillar of Horizon 2020. However, the issue is how it will be implemented and I think it’s important to involve humanities and social science researchers in the formulation of the research questions and consequently the work programmes of all grand challenges. They should also be adequately represented on evaluation panels. Only implementation of these structural solutions will ensure humanities and social sciences scholars a leadership role in projects regarding the societal challenges, for example health, and to encourage interdisciplinarity across all the challenges – problems will not be solved by technology alone.

In the current proposal there are also planned two objectives to be led by humanities and social sciences. While having two themes ‘Inclusive, innovative and reflective societies’ and ‘Secure societies’, may better cover issues requiring humanities and social sciences research, I do believe there is a danger of fragmentation and it’s particularly problematic regarding a possible splitting of the budget – the more objectives you have, the less funding each objective will receive. Whilst this division may seem like clear-cut to some lobbying groups, I think having a single objective focusing on humanities and social sciences gives the sector core leadership and this is important.

We have carried out a lot of work on conditions necessary to facilitate interdisciplinary research to find its way in Horizon 2020. However, there is still progress to be made to strengthen the role of humanities and social sciences in all grand challenges and the subsequent need for collaboration amongst the different sectors.

Earlier this year, the ESF published a report on personalised medicine – a practical example of interdisciplinary research collaboration. We worked with the medical researchers, ensuring humanities and social science played a key role in the report. Humanities and social scientists were included from the beginning and this has enabled a better understanding between the two communities and ensured better results. This report shows that research – and subsequently the society – can benefit from collaboration amongst researchers from traditionally separated domains.

Another example showing necessity of interdisciplinary collaborations is the field of energy research. Instead of – or in addition to – searching for new, miraculous sources of energy, research led by sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists but also historians and cultural studies experts could help people to change their lifestyle and use of electricity.

To what extent is humanities and social sciences research vital to ensuring the EU’s international competiveness?

Cultural and linguistic diversity is the strength of Europe, but we have to understand it better to make it work. Let’s take an example from medicine: studies show that some types of cancer could be limited if people behaved differently. For example we have relatively high death rates in some types of female cancers in some countries because women didn’t undergo tests. Consequently, this isn’t a question of developing more cancer drugs but in fact undertaking greater social sciences research to understand why few patient examinations are taking place.

It’s also clear that if we want to be competitive on the global market, we have to have better understanding of cultural identities and differences.  We need research which helps prepare practitioners to better operate in the global market, in collaboration or in competition with other cultures.

What results do you expect to see in the social sciences sector as a result from Horizon 2020 funding?

I think that there is a lot of research being done in social sciences and humanities that is crucial for understanding and addressing the key societal challenges. However, this research is not receiving significant attention at a European level and consequently is not sufficiently taken into consideration by policy makers. What I would like to see is greater visibility and greater impact of the research being conducted, similar to that of technology and science research. I think we need to change the image of social sciences and humanities, increasing the role it plays.

What are also necessary, are more Europe-wide collaborative research projects in social sciences and humanities integrating and comparing social trends and developments across European countries.  This type of research requires European research infrastructures in social sciences and humanities. The ideas and prototypes of such infrastructures have been developed in ESF projects, for example in some research networking programmes. These ideas should be further developed within Horizon 2020.

Dr Nina Kancewicz-Hoffman

European Science Foundation