Conference Report Executive Summary

“Europe is still facing many long term and complex challenges. It takes profound knowledge and insight to really understand these challenges and how they affect us, and to guide us to solutions. That is why the Social Sciences and Humanities are more essential than ever, and why we, as policymakers, are keen to have their contribution. We need them to understand ourselves, our society and the challenges we face. We need them to guide politicians and policy makers and to inform public opinion. Research and technology provide many answers to the challenges we face, but technological fixes alone aren’t enough to solve our major, complex problems. A knowledge society needs to know itself, and the social sciences and humanities are the keys to this.”

Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn at the Vilnius Conference (09/24/2013)

The Vilnius Conference aimed at bringing together representatives of Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) from all around Europe to improve the ways in which human and social sciences may impact the new European research framework programme, Horizon 2020. We were delighted by the strong words of support by the Commissioner at the conference, quoted above. This report represents a comprehensive summary of all activities before and during the conference. Remarkable as it may have been, the Vilnius Conference was only a moment in time during an on-going process of shaping Horizon 2020. Thus, the following executive summary sets the stage with a reflection on the political context of the conference, before describing aims and scopes of the event. Some general results and recommendations conclude this section, as well as observations of what happened since.

On the global scale the European Union is a unique expression of a political system calling on the SSH for policy advice while also allocating substantial funds for bottom-up research funding. We highly appreciate this development and recognise the need to continually develop research questions and processes of engagement with stakeholders.

I Context of the Conference

Horizon 2020, the largest multi-annual research framework programme in the history of the European Union, has started in 2014 and will last for seven years. With this ambitious programme, the European Commission attempts to solve several policy issues at once: Politically, it wants to foster the path towards a more innovative Europe, which is clearly seen as a way out of the current crisis. Administratively, it wants to tackle previous criticism about the conduct of research projects by introducing measures of  “simplification”. Strategically, it wants to achieve better results to the challenges that Europe is facing by giving direction and thus by influencing the way research is organised.

The latter is reflected in two aspects: One consists in identifying the “Societal Challenges” as one of three pillars of Horizon 2020. The “Challenges”-pillar provides more than 29 billion Euros, ca. 38% of the overall budget, to tackle what has been pre-defined as the great problems to be addressed by the Union in the coming years. The content of this pillar was subject to a long political discussion between European Commission, Member States, and the European Parliament. As a result, the number of challenges grew from six to seven.

The second aspect, following a proposition by the European Commission that found almost unanimous agreement between the European Parliament as well as the Member States, is the introduction of an “integrative approach” in the way the Societal Challenges are defined. Basically, this means that “silos” (the favourite negative term frequently used by the Commission) should be abolished, while interdisciplinary research across established disciplines should be fostered. Only then, it is argued, will real answers emerge to the pressing questions of policy-makers and citizen alike, such as sustainable energy, climate change, healthy ageing and other health issues, etc.

The official disclosure of the work programmes in December 2013 allows us a first assessment in terms of their integrative potential. Unfortunately, and because of the haste under which they were produced, the first “Horizon 2020” Work Programmes have taken up the new approach only in a very uneven way. In some, the integration of SSH is nominally mentioned, though not really substantiated; in a few, substantial steps are made in the right direction; while others again have been drafted in the plain old way.

This unevenness only adds to the fear that had already emerged among representatives of the social sciences and humanities since the first presentations of Horizon 2020 in 2011 that the “integrative approach” would actually mean that their particular fields of research would be diminished; and that beneath the nice talk of “integration”, dedicated programmes for the social sciences and humanities would be expulsed. Since then many open letters have been written, and the Commission has gone at great pains to reassure the SSH community that no such cuts would take place.

This was the overall context in which the members of the Steering Committee of the Vilnius Conference met for the first time in September 2012. Indeed, the committee soon came to realise that there was a potential amount of truth in those fears. However, the Committee also felt sympathetic with the overall aim of Horizon 2020, namely to overcome the silos of research funding, and to foster integrated approaches.

II What the conference wanted to achieve

As a consequence, the Steering Committee decided that the opportunity provided by the Conference under the Lithuanian Presidency should be used to counter the looming potential threat of de-facto diminishing the place for the social sciences and humanities from the Horizon 2020 programme. At the same time, the SSH community should be alerted to reflect on how to deal more actively with the opportunities that the shifting framework conditions of Horizon 2020 offer to them, instead of complaining about losing their stakes.

How could this be achieved? On the one hand, it was clear that the conference would have to go beyond previous events organized on the topic. Plenty of such meetings had taken place in the decade before. However, they were mostly dealing with the role of SSH on a very abstract level, aiming at making an impact on the SSH community rather than on the policy-makers. Quite to the contrary, the Vilnius conference therefore concentrated on a very concrete question, namely how the intended integration should actually take place. The aim of the conference was to produce a double impact: on the community of researchers and on policy-makers whose role in the process of integration would be at least as crucial.  It therefore aimed at bringing together these different communities, as well as to create a space for “representation” and for finding a voice towards policy. Only through a mutual and open discussion how to shape and practically apply the “integrative approach” could it be made to work in earnest.

Thus, the aims of the conference in Vilnius were two-fold: On the one hand, it aimed at bringing policy makers and administrators together with social science and humanities representatives, in order to discuss in detail which preconditions had to be met for the integration of SSH in each of the challenges to succeed. On the other hand, it attempted to enhance the self-perception and self-confidence of the SSH community so that it would claim more boldly its share in the H2020.

Two provisions aimed to assure that this could be achieved.

A)    Consultation and Declaration: In early 2013, the Steering Committee launched an open consultation process, asking the members of the social sciences and humanities (individuals, associations and learned societies, as well as institutions and funding organisations) to provide a comprehensive picture on how they perceived the situation of their field, and what the contribution of the European research funding programme should be. To a large extent, this consultation provided the basis for drafting a conference declaration, which has been adopted by the participants at the end of the conference, and has been handed over to the Lithuanian Minister responsible of research as the formal result of the conference.

B)    Parallel Sessions: In order to pin down the requirements for successful integration, including the practicalities of the more concrete (and to some extent diverse) integration of SSH in the seven societal challenges, the Steering Committee dedicated a major part of the conference to parallel sessions, each on one of the Societal Challenges as outlined in the H2020 legislation. These parallel sessions meetings were envisioned as “workshops” where representatives from the social sciences and humanities would discuss with Commission representatives and representatives of the natural sciences mainly two questions: What are the potential contributions which the SSH can bring to solving / enlightening the specific societal challenge? And what are specific conditions that need to be met for the SSH in order to be able to make this contribution.

III The Vilnius Declaration

The Vilnius Declaration is the result of a long deliberate exchange of ideas among the members of the Steering Committee, firmly based on the outcome of the Consultation Process. It became clear that the Declaration had to deal with two issues in particular, intended to find their way into the daily practice of policy-makers.

The immediate goal of the Declaration sets out the general conditions for integrating the SSH into the H2020 programme. In addition, the aim of the Declaration is to provide also guidance for future research programmes, either on national or on European level, to assure that integration of SSH can be achieved. It does so by

a)     Stressing the benefits of integrating SSH into the research framework of the Societal Challenges Pillar and

b)     Defining the changes necessary in order for “integration” to occur, so that effective collaboration can result. The Declaration therefore emphasises the need to recognise knowledge diversity, as well as organisational and infrastructural arrangements, and the long-term investment in interdisciplinary training and research. Finally it also highlights the need to connect social values and research evaluation.

IV Results from the Workshops

As outlined above, the parallel sessions were at the heart of the Vilnius Conference. In each of the seven parallel sessions, three distinguished experts on the topic gave a presentation: one presenter came from the SSH community, one from the natural sciences, and the third was a representative from the Directorate of the EC responsible for the operationalisation of the respective Challenge.

In this setting, it was possible to discuss for three hours in detail how the Commission so far interprets the task of tackling the societal challenge, but also the interpretation by the SSH as to their expected contribution. It thus provided room to scrutinise each of these, sometimes opposed interpretations, and to argue for widening, or altering the orientation of the Societal Challenges Programme whenever necessary.

The direction into which each of the seven parallel sessions went, to which extent they succeeded in emphasising the contributions of SSH, or to specify which changes have to me made in the overall direction, can be seen from the individual summaries of the parallel sessions in this report. It is too early to say whether the suggestions made will actually be taken up by the administrative units responsible for the operationalisation of the respective Challenge; but there was an unanimous feeling at the conference that the parallel sessions in particular offered a unique opportunity for the community to engage with policy-makers and administrators in productive discussion, and that this exercise was vital for the understanding the roles of SSH in the European Research Area in the long run.

V Conclusions and Recommendations

Whether the conference was successful in achieving its two aims of bringing Commission and SSH closer together, and in fostering a mutually shared understanding of the conditions that will need to be met, is yet to be seen. It depends to a large extent on whether the policy makers will indeed make serious attempts to integrate SSH in all parts of the process of H2020; and on the way the SSH community will deal with the legacy of the conference. What the conference achieved was to prepare a unique setting in order to fulfil the two aims. Indications of this success are:

  • The Commission was present in all parallel sessions
  • There was considerable interest from SSH communities, although not equally across all disciplines, research fields, and from all parts of Europe
  • There was a lot of media coverage, not only in specialised media, but also in mainstream newspapers
  • A change of mood was palpable – instead of complaining, loose ends were taken up and people were more willing to “take the lead”

Thus, the Conference results in two different sets of recommendations on different levels of abstraction:

–        Recommendations on a general level, addressing the integration of SSH in H2020

–        Recommendations on a detailed level, addressing the integration of SSH at within each of the Societal Challenges.

While the more detailed recommendations on each of the Societal Challenges can be found in the respective session reports, general conclusions to be taken up swiftly, are presented here.

RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION AND THE EUROPEAN MEMBER STATES FOR FURTHER CONDUCT OF HORIZON 2020

  1. The Programme Committees of each Societal Challenge should be informed about the Vilnius Declaration (http://horizons.mruni.eu) during their upcoming meetings, and the members of each Programme Committee should be invited to include experts from the Social Sciences and Humanities in their respective national group of experts for consultation on the Work Programme.
  2. Advisory boards, Programme Committees, evaluation panels and strategy committees should include experts from the Social Sciences and Humanities, including experts in interdisciplinary research. If SSH are in the minority, how can their adequate involvement be assured?
  3. New instruments and adaptable infrastructures: Each Societal Challenge should foresee CSA platforms of interdisciplinary research and the establishment of synthesis centres for innovative ways of data assembling, in order to create “real” spaces for the networking and preparation of interdisciplinary projects, bringing together experts from all fields of science and scholarship.
  4. At every “Horizon2020” kick-off, national info days, workshops on the integration of Social Sciences and Humanities and the incentives of interdisciplinary research should be highlighted, potential contributions signposted, in order to also address the respective communities. Showcases of best interdisciplinary practice, and increased awareness in research communities for EU research funding ecology with dedicated events/workshops should be provided.
  5. When it comes to access to calls, the Commission is asked to commit to openness and transparency for all stakeholders; and the member states are asked to provide adequate national support for their SSH communities. Here, the Joint Programming Initiative on Cultural Heritage and Global Change can function as a good practice example.
  6. Finally, integration should always aim to encompass both the Social Sciences and the Humanities.
  7. Organise regular meetings, if possible on each of the Societal Challenges and their work programmes, to follow up on what has been achieved in the Vilnius parallel sessions.
  8. SSH need a strong voice of its own in Europe – in order to build communities, and also to integrate SSH on common grounds into European research agenda and funding policy.
  9. Institutional arrangements for exchange of ideas (previously provided by ESF) and networking should be sought more actively.
  10. Focus on trans-nationally relevant research infrastructures: SSH collaboration can be fostered by providing a common ground for asking different questions.
  11. Promote interdisciplinary training and education where it is necessary and useful, open up university settings to cross-disciplinary research and methodology.
  12. Seek new ways of combining solution oriented and critical research.
  13. Define new skills for SSH, relevant e.g. to interdisciplinarity, participatory approaches, digitalisation and dealing with the opportunities offered by newly available data..
  14. Taking the lead means taking on bigger roles in research cooperation with natural sciences, engineering and citizens.
  15. Seek new ways and develop transparent criteria of research assessment and impact analysis.
  16. Invest in bibliographic reference bases, open access to research results and open data repositories.
  17. Organise actively interdisciplinary and reflexive SSH related training of policy makers and representatives of the natural sciences and engineering, as well as NGOS, business and industry.
  18. Connect with each other and coordinate your action whenever possible.

RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE EUROPEAN SSH STAKEHOLDERS AND RESEARCH COMMUNITIES FOR FURTHER INVOLVEMENT IN HORIZON 2020

  1. Organise regular meetings, if possible on each of the Societal Challenges and their work programmes, to follow up on what has been achieved in the Vilnius parallel sessions.
  2. SSH need a strong voice of its own in Europe – in order to build communities, and also to integrate SSH on common grounds into European research agenda and funding policy.
  3. Institutional arrangements for exchange of ideas (previously provided by ESF) and networking should be sought more actively.
  4. Focus on trans-nationally relevant research infrastructures: SSH collaboration can be fostered by providing a common ground for asking different questions.
  5. Promote interdisciplinary training and education where it is necessary and useful, open up university settings to cross-disciplinary research and methodology.
  6. Seek new ways of combining solution oriented and critical research.
  7. Define new skills for SSH, relevant e.g. to interdisciplinarity, participatory approaches, digitalisation and dealing with the opportunities offered by newly available data..
  8. Taking the lead means taking on bigger roles in research cooperation with natural sciences, engineering and citizens.
  9. Seek new ways and develop transparent criteria of research assessment and impact analysis.
  10. Invest in bibliographic reference bases, open access to research results and open data repositories.
  11. Organise actively interdisciplinary and reflexive SSH related training of policy makers and representatives of the natural sciences and engineering, as well as NGOS, business and industry.
  12. Connect with each other and coordinate your actions whenever possible.

Jutta Allmendinger, Paul Boyle, Craig Calhoun, Gustavo Cardoso, Rivka Feldhay, Poul Holm, Pavel Kabat, Helga Nowotny, Rūta Petrauskaitė, Alain Peyraube, Aura Reggiani, Peter Tindemans,
Wim van den Doel, Giedrius Viliūnas, Michel Wieviorka, Björn Wittrock

Thomas König, Katja Mayer

December 2013