Wednesday 15 December 2010

Protecting Social Sciences & Humanities within Europe

The University Association for Contemporary European Studies has raised concerns about the Socioeconomic Sciences and Humanities stream (SSH) within the EC's Framework Programme. In particular, it highlighted:
  1. The downgrading of socio-economic and humanities research in DG Research from a department to one single office (taking effect January 1, 2011);
  2. The plan to abolish broader, long-term integrated projects in social sciences and humanities in the 8th Framework Programme. Instead, a focus on "grand challenges" with topics that are more applied than basic research and are supposed to foster European competitiveness on global markets (social science as an ‘auxiliary’ discipline to be mainstreamed into the other sciences);
  3. The downsizing of funding for socio-economic and humanities research projects in the 8th Framework Programme.
So how much truth is there in these concerns, and should we be worried? I turned to UKRO for some answers. They said that there had been a significant re-structuring of the European Commission's Directorate General (DG) for Research. As part of this, the Directorate which previously managed SSH, Directorate L: Science, Economy and Society, has been discontinued.

Is this a sign of the downgrading of SSH in the eyes of the EC? Well, the eurocrats wouldn't see it like this: SSH has been taken over by the new Directorate B: European Research Area, which have equal levels of staffing to the units moved from the old Directorate L. So a structural shift, but the same commitment.

As to the future, nothing concrete has been decided about FP8, in terms of structure, research themes or instruments. However, UKRO thought that it may be possible that it may take more of a 'Grand Challenge' approach. The place of SSH within this is less clear.

If you're concerned about this, make sure your voice is heard by responding to BIS' current Call for Evidence. Before you do, take a couple of minutes to read through UACES' arguments for the importance of keeping SSH, as follows:

Why do we need a European Social Science and Humanities Research programme?
  • The European Union is far more than an economic integration area. It needs SSH research to look at questions of democracy, participation, European identity, multilingualism, social and cultural cohesion, peace and international cooperation.
  • SSH investigate prejudices and give early warnings of dangers and problems in society. Politically sensitive issues are often discussed across the social/cultural border, highlighting the effects of policy on wider society.
Who needs SSH research?
  • SSH researchers engage already in multiple collaborations with public authorities and policy makers, international organisations, think tanks, media, NGOs, churches, business and employee’s organisations, companies, museums, citizen fora etc.
  • Researchers and these collaboration groups fulfil different tasks in society. Researchers are more independent and offer a differentiated analysis with a medium-term view beyond current situations.
  • Politics is complicated and contested by various actors. Researchers cannot give simple answers, but highlight sound criteria according to which decisions should be taken and clarify consequences of policies. They enable policy makers to make decisions based on scientific evidence.
Why does research funding need to come from the European Union?
  • The European Research Area aims to create a European-wide open space for knowledge. Without European funding, cooperation projects with four to ten European partners would not be carried out.
  • Bilateral cooperation cannot replace European projects. Community and national funding are complementary, creating multiple synergies to transfer knowledge from one level to the other.
  • SSH research has only begun in FP5, but seen a huge success in the scientific community.
  • For small research fields, for instance, Chinese or Islamic studies, only very few researchers are established within one member state European research projects enable the necessary exchange.
Doesn't it cost too much?
  • No. About half of the professors at many universities work in SSH, yet less than 2% of the cooperation budget goes to SSH. In FP7, a large number of excellent research proposals could not be supported due to funding limitations. Therefore, the budget for the specific cooperation programme for SSH needs to be doubled in FP8. Even then, SSH would remain the least expensive theme in cooperation.
Which European research funding instruments do we need?
Overall, a framework programme needs to offer four instruments for SSH:
  • More SSH ERC grants are needed, by increasing the absolute budget for SSH.
  • Small- and medium sized cooperation projects (three to ten partners) are the best way to support sustainable innovation. SSH projects are very cost effective, needing only one toive million Euros. These projects bridge between the risky and individual ERC-projects to build a broader consensus involving several institutions. A wide array of topics ensures competition of ideas and enables participation of outstanding young researchers. Topic selection should be made both bottom-up (by the research community) and top-down (by the European political institutions).
  • Only a very small share of the SSH budget should be dedicated to large projects
    (beyond ten million Euros). Research themes should not be monopolised.
  • The funding for Marie-Curie programmes needs to be increased substantially to contribute to excellence and mobility in research. It is extremely important that Marie-Curie programmes are not narrowed down to intersectoral mobility into industry, but also open to public institutions and civil society, briefly mobility into all sectors outlined above.
Why is it not sufficient to open SSH participation to tackle grand challenges such as climate change?
  • While SSH have undoubtedly great contributions to make to various grand challenges, these contributions are complementary to intrinsic SSH research. Intrinsic SSH research is researchers’toolbox to contribute to specific existing questions and to adapt to newly arising challenges.
  • That is not to say that SSH should not also contribute to wider programmes, although interdisciplinary projects need to ensure a larger share of funding for SSH.
What could be improved?
  • To make the process of topic selection even more transparent, the Commission should organise an online consultation (or event) each year before drafting the work programme to give interested researchers the chance to highlight new topics. A roadmap with a few broad themes helps the research community for planning, when keeping a balance with newly upcoming themes.
  • The European Commission should consider a slightly higher European contribution per project partner. It is extremely important that the entire actual research costs are reimbursed.
For more on the University Association for Contemporary European Studies go to their website here.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this post!

    In February 2010 we organised an iKNOW project ( workshop on SSH wild cards and weak signals and "SSH abolishment in FP8" was raised as a possible (undesirable) scenario. However, your references to UACES' recent concerns and arguments are very useful to complement the description of a weak signal titled "Concerns about socio-economic and humanities research abolishment" and available online at

    We will soon launch a pan-European survey assessing this weak signal and its potential implications for European science, technology and innovation systems, for example.