Natural Sciences vs. Humanities: What are the priorities for European research?

By Gatien Du Bois | 12 April 2013

To quote this document: Gatien Du Bois, “Natural Sciences vs. Humanities: What are the priorities for European research?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Friday 12 April 2013,, displayed on 03 December 2022

Is there a difference in treatment between natural science and humanities at national and European level? If yes, why is it so? What are the obstacles humanities are facing when it comes to funding? What is the EU position from this perspective? To answer these questions and highlight the differences between natural science and humanities research in Europe we interviewed Colm Lennon, Secretary for the Humanities and Social Sciences in the Royal Irish Academy and member of a Working Group on Social Sciences and Humanities of ALLEA (ALL European Academies: European Federation of Sciences and Humanities).

The purpose of the Working Group is to ensure that the interests of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities within the member academies of ALLEA are appropriately represented in the scope, organisation and funding of the EU Programme Horizon 2020.

Nouvelle Europe (NE) – A concrete manifestation of EU research and innovation policy is the Seventh Framework Programme 2007-2013 (FP7), which has a budget of €50.5 billion. Only one (out of 13 themes) of its cooperation strands is dedicated to Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities. How do you explain this little space granted to research in humanities? What is the current situation in terms of funding?

Colm Lennon (CL) – In a way, the dedication of one entire theme to Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) in FP7 represents progress. In the past, the place of humanities within the research landscape was not perhaps championed in a coherent way, though there were advocacy groups for the humanities. Nor had the real implications of genuine interdisciplinarity in research been addressed. The budget for the SSH cooperation programme under FP7 was €623 million, i.e. 1.24% of FP7. The present campaign of the ALLEA Working Group is to promote the embedding of Humanities and Social Sciences within the three pillars and seven Societal Challenges of Horizon 2020, especially in respect of representation on Expert Advisory Groups, programme committees and evaluation panels. The hope is that the budget for Social Sciences and Humanities across all pillars and Societal Challenges, and specifically the sixth Societal Challenge, 'Europe in a changing world: inclusive, innovative and reflective societies' will reflect an enhancement in the funding for SSH under Horizon 2020.

NE – The emphasis is given first to economics, employment and competitiveness and second to security questions. Is funding given only to produce knowledge that can be used immediately by  private companies or governments?

CL – There is the danger that much of the research funding available will be allowed to research that focuses on market forces in respect of economic outcomes and employment 'creation', as well as security as understood in a narrow sense of control and surveillance. It is essential to strike a balance in Horizon 2020's approach to research excellence whereby open-ended and curiosity-driven research (which characterises much of humanities research) is funded alongside research for more short-term policy priorities. In the case of research on security, for example, social sciences and humanities have huge potential to offer insights into human, social and cultural conditions which historically have caused insecurity.

NE – Are there areas of research more useful than others according to EU institutions?

CL – Perhaps one indicator of this is funding allocation. In terms of the money being allocated across the three pillars of Horizon 2020, the strengthening of industrial leadership in innovation is to be awarded almost a quarter of the budget. Research into the major Societal Challenges to be addressed under the third pillar will be funded to the tune of 40% of the budget. These include health, demographic change and wellbeing; food security and sustainable agriculture; secure, clean and efficient energy; smart, green and integrated transport; climate action; inclusive, innovative and reflective societies; and secure societies.

NE – How does the EU / Commission allocate the available funds? What are the criteria for research in the humanities?

CL – While the first calls under Horizon 2020 will be launched in January 2014, the criteria for FP7 are an indication of the application process. Proposals are submitted following calls published by the Commission. Evaluation by peer-review is carried out by independent experts. Grant agreements are established with the researchers whose proposals have successfully passed the evaluation stage. Among the criteria applied to research funding in the humanities under the European Science Foundation is curiosity-driven, basic research in the traditional disciplines such as history and classical studies, in newly-structured broad fields of study such as cultural and media studies or trans-disciplinary areas such as behavioural science and migration studies. New methodologies and the application of advanced technologies in respect of dissemination are integral to humanities research, as is excellence in transnational and, where appropriate, trans-disciplinary fields.



NE – Are there any specific European institutions / bodies dedicated to humanities?

CL – Under the European Science Foundation, the Standing Committee for Humanities has been a funder for researchers in the humanities. Within the cabinet of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn – the Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science – there is a member dealing with Social Sciences and Humanities (Marion Dewar). The ALLEA Working Group has proposed the establishment of a dedicated Social Sciences and Humanities Unit within the Directorate General for Research and Innovation which would promote the embedding of SSH in Horizon 2020.  Of course, there are also bodies such as ALLEA and confederations of European universities which have alliances and committees of humanities practitioners and advocates.

NE – The FP7 lasts until 2013. Horizon 2020 is the EU's new programme for funding research and innovation for 2014-2020 (some €80.2 billion overall for the whole period). What can we expect for this new period of time in terms of the budget allocated to research in the humanities? What are the actual debates/priorities?

CL – The figure of €1 billion has been mentioned for research under the Societal Challenge: 'Europe in a changing world', and, in addition, the SSH should benefit across other challenges and pillars in proportion to the degree to which they are integrated within the entire Horizon 2020 project. As far as practitioners in the humanities and social sciences are concerned, the main priority to be addressed in the debate about Horizon 2020 is the extent to which and the means whereby this embedding of a humanities perspective across “the design, shape, establishment and implementation of all three pillars and the seven societal challenges” may be accomplished (see ALLEA Roadmap for embedding the Social Sciences and Humanities in Horizon 2020).

In 2012 EU research ministers agreed to strengthen social science and humanities in Horizon 2020: “Social sciences and humanities research will be fully integrated into each of the pillars of Horizon 2020 and each of the specific objectives. In relation to the societal challenges, social sciences and humanities are mainstreamed as an essential element of the activities needed to tackle each of the societal challenges to enhance their impact. The specific objective of the societal challenge 'Europe in a changing world: Inclusive, innovative and reflective societies' will support social sciences and humanities research by focusing on inclusive, innovative and reflective societies.”

Important societal and economic transformations occurring nowadays are also Social Sciences and Humanities-centred challenges. To tackle these ‘Grand Societal Challenges’, it is crucial to support research in Humanities at national and European level. Horizon 2020 by providing funding and designing programmes and joint actions is going in the right direction, although the difference of treatment remains in comparison with natural sciences. In addition, one must also try to reduce the gap between Western and Eastern Europe in this topic. Eastern states are even asking for a dedicated article in the Horizon 2020 legislation that would “ensure equal access” and “fair conditions for newcomers” and that would put an end to the “closed clubs”, by which they mean the dominance of Western EU states in winning the bulk of funding.

To go further:

On Nouvelle Europe

On the Internet

Source photo: Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci