Horizon 2020 and the Humanities and Social Sciences

Ed Hackett

Arizona State University – School of Human Evolution and Social Change

December 11, 2013

I am very grateful for the opportunity to take part in the discussion about Horizon 2020 recently held in Vilnius. In return, the paragraphs below offer my thoughts about ways to meet the challenges ahead, and the papers mentioned provide additional detail. I would be delighted to help with the work that lies ahead.

Funding mechanisms and research organization

Horizon 2020 challenges the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) to collaborate among themselves and with engineers and scientists to produce intellectual and societal benefits. Initiating and sustaining collaborations of this sort will require new funding mechanisms, innovative patterns of research organization, and more active and sensitive use of assessment and management in the course of research. Every one of the challenges should have strong participation of SSH. The work of Horizon 2020 will unfold in stages, the first involving innovation in the funding mechanisms and organization of research, the second in the conduct of research itself, including integration across disciplines and engagement with practitioners and the public, and the third in the adaptive management of research through ongoing assessment and adjustment. Innovations of such scope and depth are more effective if designed collaboratively by European Commission staff and members of various scholarly disciplines. Such collaborations not only increase the technical quality of the intervention, they also do much to insure that the changes are understood to be legitimate and fair, and to secure “buy-in” from the research community. Time is short, and so these collaborations should begin soon.

The degree of originality called for by Horizon 2020 requires innovation of some depth in the funding, organization, technology, and conduct of research. At the center of the Horizon initiative I would place the socio-technical organization of research, and then would design funding and allocation mechanisms (which lie upstream of research) and assessment activities (which lie downstream) to suit the new forms of research organization and technology. “Research infrastructure” is an inadequate term to characterize the changes required. In literal terms, infrastructure is the stuff below and within the structure—the foundation or groundwork—upon which a structure is built. Well-built infrastructure is generally considered to be solid, serviceable, enduring, and inert; adequate for the task of providing the support necessary for the structure built upon it. The ensembles of research technologies or platforms employed in scientific research are different: they have agency, reactivity, and potential energy, and they are a transformative force that challenges orthodoxy, generates empirical insights, and catalyzes new theories. New research technologies require new analytic models and tools; generate data that demand novel explanations; initiate new patterns of research organization, collaboration, and publication (including collaborations that extend outside the university to include practitioners and members of the public); and require values and ethics adequate to guide practice in this world of new possibilities. In other words, new research infrastructure will place demands upon what is built upon it and, in turn, the infrastructure itself will be reshaped and repurposed in the course of its use.

This vital quality—research infrastructure that shapes and is shaped by its use—calls for a design and construction process that is broadly participative and adaptively managed. Openness and broad participation across disciplines and generations are essential to elicit innovative ideas and build the foundation of legitimacy and support that will be necessary for the innovations to follow. The experiences of other sciences are reasonably well documented, and we would be well advised to study them, consult our colleagues, and shape our path accordingly.

Emerging topics at the conference

Assessment, interdisciplinarity, and embeddedness, in various forms and combinations, appeared throughout the conference program and discussion. Uncertainty and anxiety accompanied these concepts, at times rising to such levels that perspective was distorted and means supplanted ends. I would like to suggest ways to think about each of these three concepts that will ease some of the concern and allow work to proceed effectively.


Assessment was discussed in its ex ante and ex post forms, but it is important also to consider in situ assessment and the rising demand for more nuanced forms of assessment (such as assessment that looks beyond “how many” publications or “how much” impact to assess substantively the kind and quality of outputs, the distribution and variety of benefits, and the trajectory of innovation). Importantly, designing new forms of assessment and their deployment for adaptive guidance of inquiry and innovation are themselves rich topics for collaboration across SSH fields and with our colleagues in engineering and the sciences.

In situ assessment examines the research process in context and in near-real time, with the aim of improving the quality of outcomes. Underlying this effort is recognition that the speed of innovation and the complexity of its interactions produce emergent outcomes that are hard to anticipate and that therefore demand a parallel acceleration of assessment. Nuance—here intended to mean not only focusing on “how much” was produced but also on the more important but less-readily-measured qualities and implications of the output—is an integral aspect of assessment. Peer review is often employed in assessment before research is done (in the evaluation of proposals, for example) or after it is completed (in the evaluation of manuscripts for publication). But the most powerful peer review happens in the course of research itself, when collaborating scientists propose tentative explanations and conclusions to the group, which then evaluates and revises them in “real time.” We might call this “endemic” peer review, because it originates within the research project and is closely tailored to its substance, methods, and aims. Also worth exploring are bibliometric mapping techniques and semantic analysis of scientific text (titles, keywords, abstracts), which are now possible to do at a scale and speed that was unimaginable a decade or so ago. These methods provide new insights into the qualities of research output that are invisible to traditional measures. Done well this new form of assessment will reveal aspects of the research process that engage diverse stakeholders in a process of adaptive guidance of innovation and inquiry, complementing ex ante and ex post studies.


Interdisciplinary collaboration is not an end in itself but instead is a means to generate integrative explanations, to inspire broader and more original ideas, and to spark innovation. Too often interdisciplinary collaboration appeared in the Vilnius program discussion as a goal in itself. This may cause frustration for two reasons: first, when interdisciplinary collaboration looms so large that is seems an end in itself, and meetings are organized chiefly for the purpose of achieving it, participants often depart feeling unsatisfied because nothing happened to advance knowledge or solve problems, and for that reason they become less inclined to participate in the future. Second, because disciplines are so large and diverse it is unlikely that every part of one discipline would work well with every part of another, and (frankly) there is no reason to attempt such a relationship. (And the problem only worsens when more disciplines are involved.) Better to motivate and focus interdisciplinary collaboration with a commitment to addressing well-defined intellectual or societal problems, using the focus and depth of commitment to a solution to overcome differences in epistemic cultures.

Following the Vilnius conference, meetings might be organized to identify and prioritize problems that have intellectual and societal importance, and to design research strategies (research organizations and funding mechanisms) best suited to address them. As shorthand we might call this activity the identification of “necessary” and “sufficient” innovations: for which problems is more innovation necessary and effort should be invested, and for which is innovation already sufficient and not in need of deliberate stimulation? Settling such questions is itself an important topic for the sort of wide-ranging collaborations that will be the signature of the Horizon 2020 program. For SSH fields it is particularly advantageous to take the initiative in organizing and convening such collaborations, inviting potential collaborators from other sciences to workshops. By framing issues from the SSH perspective, ethics, values, and social dynamics will lie at the heart of the research, which will more likely be framed in a way that yields benefits for a wide diversity of social groups and advances knowledge across a broad disciplinary front. Scholars in Science and Technology Studies, broadly understood, can catalyze such collaborations and facilitate communications across disciplines.

Embedding or integrating?

Embeddedness also caused some confused discussions about which disciplines would be embedded in which, with ancillary concerns about disciplinary dominance, initiative, respect, and such. Better not to think of disciplines embedded in one another but instead to embed intellectual and societal problems within an interdisciplinary matrix of concepts, methods, and data specifically tailored to suit the challenge (or family of challenges). This places the emphasis where it belongs, on the creation of innovative and effective analytic frameworks, rather than on the relative power of disciplines. These frameworks or interdisciplinary matrices (and I mean the referent to Thomas Kuhn) would be built to address the scientific (natural and social), engineering (including social engineering), ethical, and values-relevant aspects of the problem. The matrix may take the organizational form of a large-scale collaboration (think of those supported by ERC’s synergy program), a collaborative network (think of NSF’s Research Collaboration Networks), a formal center (perhaps built around research infrastructure in the sense described above, which might entail large-scale instrumentation, such as a coordinated set of spatially explicit environmental and social surveys, coupled with aerial imagery of land cover, historical maps, and census data (see Hackett, 2011) or a synthesis center (see Hackett and Parker, 2014 a and b). Synthesis centers have developed a distinctly effective mode of interdisciplinary collaboration that engages practitioners and public officials in work that advances scholarship while addressing real-world problems. Let me describe them in some detail.

Creating synthesis centers

On synthesis: synthesis is the integration of diverse concepts, theories, and data across fields of science and scholarship with the aim of producing explanations that are more extensive or fundamental and that may inform more effective policies or innovations. It is a process well suited to the ambitions of the Horizon program. Synthesis centers catalyze the fabrication of new knowledge from existing data through intensive interdisciplinary collaborative groups which are assembled to focus on integrative questions that have scientific and practical significance. There are examples in several fields of science distributed around the globe. In addition to the US centers (the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (est. 2005), the National Center for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (est. 2008), and the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (est. 2011)), other synthesis centers include the Australian Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, the Stockholm Resilience Center, the Institute Para Limes (Netherlands), the Center for Synthesis and Analysis on Biodiversity (France), and the Center for Biodiversity Analysis and Synthesis (Germany). And the list is growing.

Synthesis centers convene temporary working groups to engage in deep analysis and integration of existing theory, data and methods about a specific scientific topic or policy issue. They tend not to gather new data but to assemble and analyze existing data in ways that provide broader scale and more durable explanations, thereby adding value to prior research investments while producing a distinct and powerful form of new knowledge. Groups typically consist of 8-15 collaborators who meet at the center for about a week, two or three times each year, over a period of two or three years. These intense periods of face-to-face collaboration are complemented by work done at participants’ home institutions and by electronic collaboration conducted by group members during the intervals between meetings. Unlike the academic “families” of advisors and graduate students of traditional ecology, working groups are larger, more diverse collaborations spanning disciplines and extending from academe into the worlds of policy and practice. This extensive collaboration brings ancillary benefits: new research networks form and a culture of collaboration and engagement with real-world problems emerges within participating disciplines. Importantly, synthesis centers are not panaceas or miracle-workers, but are a novel and flexible organizational instrument for altering collaborative patterns.

The center’s design and operating principles are determined by the disciplinary needs and practices of the sciences involved, and by any special requirements imposed by the practical problems the center will address. In addition, some general principles (detailed in Hackett and Parker 2014b) should be kept in mind. These include locating the center in an area that is easy and inviting to travel to yet free of the usual distractions of academic life (that is, some distance away from a university campus or major institute that would distract center visitors from their group and its purpose). The center must provide a near-flawless, high-quality research environment, along with excellent technical support for computation and analysis: the sort of place where visitors can begin work the moment they arrive. This contributes to the culture and atmosphere of the center as a place where important work is done. Research groups are best composed of scholars and practitioners with complementary expertise, suited for the problem at hand, and varied in seniority. Distancing the group from the traditional academic setting and its status cues seems to enhance the ability of junior scholars to work as peers with their senior counterparts. This age complementarity can be an exceptionally creative and productive combination, both for what it accomplishes and for the immersive educational experience it offers the junior collaborators. Given the current age structure and employment circumstances in engineering, humanities, and the sciences, there is great benefit in creating organizations that fully engage the talents of young scholars.

Whichever specific organizations are developed, these should be operated as user facilities—a place to work collaboratively, open to the community but hosted in particular place for the duration of the award—a design that contains elements of a network and elements of a formal center. To explore the potential contribution of synthesis centers to the goals of Horizon 2020 will require groundwork that is best done in workshops composed of scientists and scholars from diverse fields (across the knowledge spectrum) who share a general interest in a problem domain. The aim of the workshop would be to formulate and explore research challenges amenable to the synthesis process—problems for which data are available that could yield more knowledge if analyzed in an integrative fashion, using an interdisciplinary conceptual framework. The workshops prepare fields to think in this way and to begin the search for common and mutually productive intellectual ground. Some time may be set aside for informal interaction to take place around the central agenda, but success and accomplishment are the strongest reinforcements for collaboration, and so it is vital that workshops are product oriented. From a set of workshops a funding program and call for proposals could be developed that allow innovative synthesis center models to compete for funding.

Horizon 2020 presents the SSH community with an unparalleled opportunity to advance scholarship and address societal challenges in ways that promise to transform knowledge and inquiry in our fields while enhancing their standing in the public mind. The deepest problems confronting the world—among them inequality, security, nutrition, sustainability, aging, energy, migration, and environmental degradation—are problems that demand the integrated efforts of humanists, engineers, and scientists of every sort. New organizations, research practices, institutions, and collaborative arrangements among disciplines and beyond university walls are needed to bring the necessary energy, ingenuity and talent to bear on the challenges that lie ahead.

Works mentioned (all available from ehackett@asu.edu)

“From Salomon’s House to Synthesis Centers.”Edward J. Hackett and John N. Parker.To appear in Thomas Heinze and Richard Muench, eds., Intellectual and Institutional Innovation in Science. Palgrave (Macmillan), 2014a.

“Ecology Reconfigured: Organizational Innovation, Group Dynamics and Scientific Change.” Edward J. Hackett and John N. Parker. To appear in Martina Merz and Philippe Sormani, eds., The Local Configuration of New Research Fields, Sociology of Sciences Yearbook. Springer, 2014b.

“Possible Dreams: Research Technologies and the Transformation of the Human Sciences,” Edward J. Hackett, The Handbook of Emergent Technologies in Social Research. Sharlene Hesse-Biber, ed., New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2011.

About Ed Hackett:
Dr. Hackett’s research focuses on how the social organization and conduct of science influence the knowledge that is produced. He has written about collaboration, leadership, peer review, environmental justice, and other topics. At the National Science Foundation he has directed the Division of Social and Economic Sciences (2006-08) and the Science and Technology Studies Program (1996-98). Dr. Hackett teaches courses on inequality and sustainability (from a global perspective), technology and society, social dimensions of science (grad) and research design and methodology (grad).

Arizona State University – School of Human Evolution and Social Change