EU challenged to broaden Horizon

Concerns grow that framework programme is ignoring humanities research. Paul Jump writes

August 11, 2011

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Grand ideas: research challenges should include work on identity, say some

The European Union's proposed research "challenges" for its next seven-year spending period fail to acknowledge the contribution that the humanities and social sciences can make, observers have warned.

The European Commission ran a consultation earlier this year on its intention to organise its next framework programme for research and innovation - known as Horizon 2020 - around a series of "societal grand challenges".

Those proposed so far relate to food security, health and well-being, clean energy, green transport, climate change and the move "towards more inclusive, innovative and secure societies".

Shearer West, until recently director of research at the Arts and Humanities Research Council and now head of humanities at the University of Oxford, described the latter as "a noble attempt to have a challenge for social science and humanities". But she added that it did not feel "very coherent".

She also warned that the other proposals were too technology-focused and ignored the strength of Europe's creative economy and its tourism and heritage industries.

She said the concerns were felt across the Continent. "The concern is that there won't be the capacity to develop research challenges to which the arts and humanities can contribute unless it is thought about very carefully now, before the strategy is locked down." She said the AHRC was having a "very productive conversation" with the Commission, which had invited it to propose three grand challenges on which arts and humanities researchers could lead.

It has proposed "European identities: mobility, diversity and cohesion", "Copyright and creativity in the digital age" and "Culture and changing concepts of well-being".

The British Academy, which shares many of the AHRC's concerns, has proposed an "understanding Europe" challenge, which would include research on identity, employment and quality of life.

The academy's consultation response expresses its concern that "insufficient attention is paid to...the requirement for fundamental analysis of societal problems, by scholars in the humanities and social sciences, before designing policies in response to those problems".

Mark English, the Commission's spokesman for research, innovation and science, said detailed proposals for Horizon 2020 would be presented at the end of the year, but he emphasised that the Commission would reserve the right to adopt new challenges in the future.

He said the EU recognised that social science and humanities research "complements technology-driven research in areas where there are major societal issues at stake".

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