EU research ‘still failing to include social sciences’

Without input from other disciplines, new technologies will fail to improve lives, report warns

April 3, 2017
A lone spectator
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European Union research projects are still failing to integrate social sciences and humanities with the physical sciences and engineering, despite long-standing pledges to do so, a report warns.

There are “large swathes” of Horizon 2020 in which the social sciences and humanities are “either not present or merely paid lip service”, it finds. The study adds that, even in research challenges specifically about European society, their impact has been “patchy”.

The failure to integrate these disciplines properly into the EU’s €80 billion (£69 billion) research programme means that technological breakthroughs may not actually improve people’s lives, while new technological ideas coming from social scientists may be missed, the authors argue.

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Beatrice De Gelder, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University and a member of the advisory group that drew up the report, said that “technology developed for the sake of technology” was not a worthy aim.

For example, social science is crucial in the development of new virtual and augmented reality technologies, she said. Creating better, more realistic virtual reality is in narrow terms an engineering challenge, she said, but to work out how it can actually benefit people – to rehabilitate stroke patients, for example – requires input from all kinds of disciplines, such as sociology.

Smart meters, which charge people more for electricity during peak times to reduce the load on the grid, are another example of a technological solution that failed to account for human behaviour, the report, The Need to Integrate the Social Sciences and Humanities with Science and Engineering in Horizon 2020 and Beyond, says. Pilot studies have found that the meters make only “very modest” changes to behaviour.

Another member of the advisory group, Nigel Gilbert, director of the Centre for Research in Social Simulation at the University of Surrey, said that the group was “fed up” that, despite multidisciplinarity being touted as a key aim of Horizon 2020 and its predecessor, actions had still not lived up to words.

A recent assessment by the EU found that in 2014, nearly three in 10 Horizon 2020 projects flagged up as needing input from social sciences or humanities nonetheless had no partners from those subjects. However, 2015 saw an improvement, with this proportion almost halving.

“This is not a bunch of social scientists trying to promote their own interests,” Professor Gilbert said. “The advisory group is a complete cross section, from quantum physicists to philosophers.”

There were several reasons why Horizon 2020 projects had fallen short on integration, he explained: calls for proposals needed to make clearer that they needed multidisciplinary solutions, and there was also a shortage of assessors with broad enough expertise to judge multidisciplinary proposals.

In the longer term, “there needs to be technologists who are much more literate in the social sciences, and there needs to be more social scientists who aren’t frightened of technology”, he said. “We can’t change that tomorrow, that’s a long-term ambition.”

Professor Gilbert added that he hopes the criticism influences how research projects are carried out for the remainder of Horizon 2020, and during its successor from 2021 onwards.

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