Research universities defend “soft sciences”

Nieuws | de redactie
26 juni 2012 | Horizon 2020 threatens to sidetrack the social and behavioural sciences and the humanities. The “soft” sciences have now found a strong supporter in the League of European Research Universities.

Whether it is about climate, energy, food supply or security,the societal challenges enveloping us are real and require seriousattention. Research from and across many fields will be neededto deliver better understanding leading to better solutions, notonly from the “hard” sciences but crucially also from thesocial/behavioural sciences and the humanities (SSH). Modernsociety depends on the whole range and interconnectedness ofknowledge rather than on a restricted number of academicdisciplines.

LERU welcomes the fact that the European Commission has includedsocietal challenges research as one of three pillars in the EU’snext research funding programme Horizon 2020. But theCommission has to make sure that SSH research is adequatelyrepresented in all the societal challenges proposed for Horizon2020. In other words, SSH research is equally important in the”health, demographic change and wellbeing”, the “smart, green andintegrated transport” and other challenges. It should not berelegated to the “inclusive, innovative and secure societies”challenge.

Societal impact

To be clear, this is not to argue that SSH should be at theservice of other research fields. SSH research generates newinsights which have a deep and intrinsic value. Therefore, theCommission should also take care to fund SSH research generouslywithin the ‘excellence in the science base’ pillar of Horizon 2020,which supports frontier research aimed at producing new knowledgewithout a primary regard for societal impact.  

In the paper LERU examines the six (probably to become seven)Horizon 2020 societal challenges, explains how SSH research isrelevant to each of them and suggests which SSH questions and linesof research can or should be pursued in these societalchallenges. 

To give but one example, a sustainable climate policy has toaddress such fundamental “human” questions as why people should bemotivated to opt for sustainable policies if they have far reachingconsequences on their life style, or how conflicts can be resolvedbetween individual rights expectations in a liberal society and theneeds of sustainable policies. To ensure the success of Horizon2020, it is essential that SSH researchers are fully engaged andinvolved in the whole process right from the start, from agendasetting and problem formulation to project decisions andimplementation, in all societal challenges.

LERU makes a number of related recommendations tostrengthen SSH research at a European level:

  • National research funding organisations should be encouraged tocontinue creating common funds for cross-border SSH research;
  • European research infrastructure consortia should accommodateSSH in a creative way, with special attention for digitalinfrastructures;
  • International collaboration in “small or threateneddisciplines” (for some fields of, but by no means limited to, theHumanities) should be promoted to strengthen them;
  • A European SSH platform should be created to develop and updateSSH research agendas; it should be led by leading SSHresearchers.

In a fast changing world in which Europe will continue toencounter new challenges, SSH research is of vital importance toenable European societies to think critically, to remain tolerantand to become more innovative and inclusive.  

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