Session Report: Europe in a changing world

Europe in a changing world – Inclusive, innovative and reflective societies
Social Sciences and Humanities in the Pillar ‘Societal Challenges’ of Horizon 2020 (2014-2020)

Vilnius, 24 September 2013

Session Report

Chair: Jutta Allmendinger, WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germany
Rapporteur: Sally Wyatt, Maastricht University, Netherlands
Statement: Reinhilde Veugelers, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
Statement: Marc Caball, University College Dublin, Ireland
Statement: Robert Burmanjer, European Commission, Belgium
Coordination: Julia Stamm, WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germany
Report: Jutta Allmendinger, Julia Stamm, Sally Wyatt

This report focuses on the conference session dedicated to Horizon 2020 Societal Challenge number six, named “Europe in a changing world: Inclusive, innovative and reflective societies”, the one among the seven challenges which is – supposedly – dedicated to research in the social sciences and humanities (SSH). This report questions the framework conditions that need to be fulfilled in order to ensure that research within this challenge will contribute significantly to tackling the major questions societies currently face. It also addresses, however, the crucial issue of achieving true interdisciplinarity across all seven challenges, postulating that only true interdisciplinary research – within and across SSH disciplines as well as in the interaction between the SSH and the other sciences – will lead to significant or even groundbreaking advances and findings in contemporary and future research.

The report outlines the conclusions the authors drew from the Vilnius conference. Furthermore, it provides practical advice on the issues that are to be tackled in order to sincerely and profoundly address the issue of interdisciplinarity in EU research – in order to ensure that research conducted under the umbrella of Horizon 2020 will be able to live up to its promises.


Horizon 2020 aims to implement interdisciplinarity and an integrated scientific approach. If research is to serve society, a resilient partnership with all relevant actors is required. A wide variety of perspectives will provide critical insights to help achieve the benefits of innovation. Recognizing that innovation and societal progress cannot be considered only in technical terms, it has been repeatedly stated that research on each of the challenges has to integrate fully the Social Sciences and Humanities. As rightly underlined by the Vilnius Declaration adopted at the end of the Vilnius conference, “the effective integration of SSH requires that they are valued, researched and taught in their own right as well as in partnership with other disciplinary approaches.”

Demographic challenges, protest movements, increasing social inequality within and between EU member states, the digital turn, cultural and religious diversity, the continuing change of values, the absence of a great narrative for Europe, the EU’s position in a global context: the expectations vis-à-vis Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) are immense. The scope in H2020 is much larger than it was in FP7/Theme 8, thanks to the addition of “reflective societies” by the European Parliament and the Council during negotiations.

In all areas, we lack research that is problem-driven AND focusing on basic research. Moreover, it has to contribute to answering today’s and tomorrow’s big questions. The panel of this session focused mainly on issues of content. Do the three catchwords ‘innovative’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘reflective’ frame the content of challenge 6 satisfactorily? Are they precise enough to inspire and provide guidance? What exactly, for instance, do we understand with the term ‘reflective’?

Different ways and formats of research funding were also discussed. There was consensus that all of them have to be open to the participation of all researchers, have to be able to connect to other disciplines and have to be the least bureaucratic possible. But we need formats that are conceived for the long term and that benefit from substantial funding amounts. We also need innovative antenna programmes that can be set up at short notice. Transfer programmes are central. Nothing would be worse than the SSH distancing themselves from the social phenomena and the societal actors that carry them. How do we reach these goals? How can we attract the best researchers? How do we motivate the best evaluators? How should quality assurance for research, especially interdisciplinary research look like?

And, in particular: how do we assure the legitimacy of SSH within H2020 that research needs?

Confidence and visibility

SSH need to have more confidence in their own contributions to all of the societal challenges identified in Horizon 2020. SSH contributes substantially to the development of the human spirit, and to critical reflection and debate. It also makes more utilitarian contributions to culture, media, education, tourism, etc. through university-level education and training. SSH should not marginalize themselves from the debates and challenges facing Europe in a changing world. The role of SSH is not simply to help science and business to reduce public resistance or increase acceptance ofscientific and technological innovations. For their part, SSH need to develop a common language in order to communicate better amongst themselves, and with other disciplines and other societal actors. This will increase their effectiveness in addressing the challenges posed by Horizon 2020.

Engagement instead of embedment

‘Embedding’ is not an appropriate term, as it suggests at best an asymmetric relationship with what is already defined by others, whether that is the STEM disciplines or policy makers. ‘Engagement’ captures the desired relationship much better.

SSH needs to engage at three levels:

  1. With the STEM and other SSH disciplines in all of the societal challenges. For example, questions of the distribution of resources and of changes in human behaviour are pertinent to all other societal challenges. Similarly, developments in science, technology and medicine have implications for inclusion and solidarity.
  2. With the Commission, to define research questions and funding instruments.
  3. With society and a range of publics to strengthen democratic participation in addressing the challenges.

Recommendations on how to make Horizon 2020, with SSH as crucial component, a success

European SSH communities currently share doubts about whether the European Commission can really deliver on its good intentions. When sifting through the pre-published work programme drafts too many of the SSH flagged topics are “weak” and ascribe a rather secondary or instrumentalised role to SSH research (e.g. assessing market potential, assessing public acceptance of technology). Similar concerns relate to the composition of advisory boards and evaluation panels. To these belong questions about the management of minority views: how will panels be handled in order to avoid the SSH expert always being relegated to a minority view?

Clearly, more time is needed to develop concepts, structures and indicators for quality interdisciplinarity.

Twelve practical recommendations are listed below. They are addressed to the SSH research community, to the European Commission, to research policy-makers and to funders alike. Implementing them would be a substantial step towards a holistic integration of SSH research in Horizon 2020 and to fostering true interdisciplinarity.

  1. Interdisciplinarity across all societal challenges: It is true that challenge 6 is the challenge dedicated to SSH. This does not mean, however, that the social sciences and humanities do not have the same task as the other challenges. We have to cooperate with the sciences and engineering. And not only cooperation is important, but also the genuine integration of other disciplines into SSH. The major difference is that it is up to us – the SSH community – to set the agenda, to identify the obstacles to be overcome, and to engage with the stakeholders who can contribute to these topics and to their integration.
  2. Integrating internally and externally: The above task is not easy since SSH is characterized by a high degree of internal heterogeneity. Regarding methods and the theoretical approaches used, SSH are very diverse. Thus, for challenge six to be successful and to be able to integrate others, we have to overcome internal tensions, agree internally on common themes and together identify partners. Again, this is something that WE, the SSH community, have to do. Integrating others also means to be willing to integrate ourselves, and to present our internal diversity as a source of strength. The fact that SSH is characterized by multiple methods and approaches means it can tackle a great variety of research questions.
  3. Finding ways to attract the best researchers to contribute to EU projects: We have to ensure that the best researchers participate in EU-funded research projects. This is not easy since many institutes and scientists still refrain from applying for EU funds, as bureaucratic requirements are seen to be a burden. Money is not the appropriate way to motivate them. Very often, EU funds do not enjoy a high reputation. Hence, the real currency that we need to offer is the possibility to cooperate with other excellent researchers. Beyond that, there is a need to increase awareness amongst the SSH community of the whole research funding ecology. EU, national and local funding agencies often have different, complementary mechanisms and goals that are appropriate for different types of research.
  4. Simplify procedures and enhance flexibility: Applying for funding has become highly specialized work, taking months of preparation. This is highly ineffective and a waste of resources. Possibly, a two-step procedure, with the first one being very quick and concise, could prove effective. Furthermore, the existing range of research instruments should be extended, to support not only large consortia of research groups but also to support smaller groups and experimental projects, recognizing the latter may be higher risk.
  5. The importance of interdisciplinary education: So far, we have identified three obstacles: 1. Internal integration of SSH; 2. Engaging with STEM disciplines; and 3. Motivating excellent researchers in all disciplines to work together. In order to live up to this threefold challenge, we have to start with the education of our researchers, and this very early on. We want to add the benefits of a “studium generale”, as implemented in “arts and sciences” classes in the Anglo-Saxon countries. We could also work on the doctoral programmes. What we favour, though, is a postdoctoral period, clearly dedicated to working with the other sciences within one’s own thematic area. That way, researchers can learn from each other’s methods and theories to develop a joint understanding.
  6. Tailoring European funding programmes differently: We should not only implement this joint learning experience during the education phase. From an EU funding perspective, programmes could be tailored in such a way that they would allow for a preparatory phase before the start of the actual research project. In this model, the identification of possible partners would be the first step. Here, one could set a first funding barrier. Once this first and rather modest barrier has been surmounted, the research partners would get funds for organizing two or three short preparatory workshops. This would have the advantage of being able to already jointly draft the programmes, within but also beyond the SSH.
  7. Connect to a broad variety of societal actors: In addition to preparing differently for interdisciplinarity, both in the education of researchers as well as in the conceptualisation and drafting of funding programmes, we also have to face the necessity of connecting different societal sectors. In practice that means that we have to identify stakeholders working on the big societal challenges in other sectors. They can come from government, from administration, from business, from media, etc. All of them confront societal problems daily. And they also need incentives to participate. This does not require a lot of money – but it does require some money. If one would be able to better tackle societal phenomena and to set a clearer focus, this would help many sciences, and also many social sciences. It would also help to bring the research results into society and to show that SSH can indeed be applied.
  8. Showcase best practice: In order to stimulate better integration, successful interdisciplinary and intersectoral projects should be showcased and rewarded. This could take different forms, such as awarding individual prizes both for projects that have successfully integrated SSH and researcher pairings from the sciences, and for SSH communities who have” re- imagined” their research or roles through collaboration. We should also improve our readiness to learn from fields with experience of interdisciplinary research and teaching, such as science and technology studies, classics, archaeology.
  9. Develop common and valid evaluation criteria for interdisciplinarity: We have to discuss – and to agree upon – the evaluation criteria for interdisciplinarity. This is not an easy task. It cannot suffice to just “tick a box” when interdisciplinarity within SSH and between SSH and engineering is indicated in the project proposal. Rather, we need to rework the evaluation criteria in order to ensure that the selection of projects to be supported is transparent. This also means that researchers, university administrators, Commission services, funders, etc. cannot define criteria that are not applied by the evaluators.
  10. Develop a range of topics cutting across the societal challenges: A broad range of issues is relevant to all seven societal challenges and to all scientific disciplines. Evaluation and ethical aspects are just some of them. Others include understanding behavioural change and resource allocation. They need to be identified and be taken into consideration across all topics.
  11. Provide room for experiments and accept failures as part of the road to success: In order to enhance innovation and creativity, there is a need to provide room for experimentation and laboratory processes AND adequate funding for them. One tool could be investment in “pilot” scale activities designed to foster truly innovative and interdisciplinary working. But there is a crucial prerequisite to it: there needs to be a broad and general acceptance that exploratory work of this kind is likely to be higher risk and as a result may lead to learning about what does not work: We have to learn to embrace failures as part of the road to success.We close this list of recommendations with a final challenge that needs to be considered and addressed urgently. It refers to an item that we are not supposed to tackle or to put in the centre of our discussion. However, it is central and needs to be addressed: the issue is money.
  12. Ensure a meaningful budget for challenge six: It is paramount to realize that challenge six “Europe in a changing world: Inclusive, reflective and innovative societies” is inadequately equipped in financial terms. This is particularly true if we deduct the funds not relating to “pure” SSH research, such as technology-driven research or programmes that could not be fitted elsewhere. The research community always feared that challenge six would become a “dropbox” – it seemed they were right. This is not sustainable and does not comply with the promises of high Commission officials in Vilnius and elsewhere. The EU will have more than 71 billion EUR to support research. In this context, why does European policy relevant SSH research have to be reduced to 0.5% of this budget? Coherence between intentions and facts is now needed and we call upon Commissioner Geoghehan-Quinn to make sure that she supports at least the same budget share for SSH in Horizon 2020 in societal challenge six as in the previous funding period (1.2% of the FP7 budget) for the SSH and policy relevant research in Horizon 2020.


Media pay close attention to post-conference activities:


  • September 2013, Copenhagen, DK: The role of social science and humanities in H2020
  • October and November 2013, Macerata, IT: SSH in Horizon 2020, meeting series
  • November 2013: Aarhus, DK: Negotiating the Humanities
  • December 2013, Brussels, BE: 43 shades of Social Sciences and Humanities in Horizon 2020?
  • February 2014, Athens, GR: Achieving Impact: Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities (SSH) in Horizon 2020

Communications (excerpts)

To be published

  • DUZ:An der Armutsgrenze (to be published 22 Dec 2013)
  • WZB-Mitteilungen 142, Dec 2013:The EU and Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities
  • Special issue journal: FORSCHUNG, Dec 2013, Interview with Helga Nowotny, Jutta Allmendinger, Dagmar Simon und Julia Stamm
  • Horizon 2020 Projects: SSH – A Key to Success (Jan 2014)

Horizon 2020 Work-Programme: