Socio-economic research is the key to managing scientific progress, says Research DG director

February 28, 2003

Brussels, Feb 2003

Research in the social sciences and humanities will improve the relationship between scientific progress and its benefit to society, said Jean-François Marchipont, Director of Directorate K - Knowledge-based economy and society - in the Commission's Research DG, during an interview with CORDIS News.

Under the recently launched Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), research in social sciences and humanities is the focus of the priority area 'citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society', but what is the current status of socio-economic research in Europe, and why has the Commission made it a key priority? Mr Marchipont answered these questions and explained why he feels that this area of endeavour will attract an even greater emphasis in the future.

When asked why Europe needs to carry out research into the social sciences and humanities, Mr Marchipont explained that such initiatives provide the crucial link between science and policy making.

'Through such efforts, the scientific basis of European and national policies will be much better than in the past,' he said. Whereas medical research may result in vaccines against disease, social research projects result in the creation of effective policies that benefit society.

Socio-economic (SE) research plays another vital role in the relationship between science and society: 'The current pace of scientific progress is very fast, but our ability to assess the societal consequences of this progress is lagging behind. Research in the social sciences and humanities is what allows us to accurately measure such consequences, and is therefore vital if we wish to remain the masters of our own progress,' stressed Mr Marchipont.

Linked to this role of predicting the consequences of change is the development of socio-economic research as a tool for foresight: the process of identifying scientific trends as a guide to decision making and priority setting. Mr Marchipont believes that this foresight dimension will be vitally important in demonstrating to the public and scientific community just what can be achieved through general scientific progress.

The existence of a priority area dedicated to SE focussed activities within FP6 is a reflection of the perceived importance of this field of research. So too is the increase in budget for such activities: 225 million euro under the 'citizens and governance' priority of FP6, compared with 147 million euro for 'targeted socio-economic research' under FP5. When funding for dedicated SE activities in other non-technological priority areas is taken into account, the total figure under FP6 rises to around 355 million euro, and the sum total of all SE activities, including those carried out under technological priority areas, is even higher.

Mr Marchipont told CORDIS News that he welcomes such a trend, but believes that social sciences and humanities research will become an even more central part of Community programmes in the future: 'The political direction is good, interest in the field is increasing, but support is still not as high as its importance merits,' he said.

He is realistic about the pace of change, however, stating that there would be no benefit in increasing levels of support beyond the capacity of the scientific community to absorb and fully exploit it.

In fact, Mr Marchipont sees that before reaching its full potential, a reorganisation of the social sciences and humanities will be necessary. 'Social sciences are very dispersed, and are often considered less scientific than, for example, natural sciences. The creation of the European Research Area [ERA] will be a great stimulus for social science to reorganise itself.'

In order to facilitate such a reorganisation, the Commission has created an advisory group for its citizens and governance priority, chaired by the former Portuguese Minister, Maria João Rodriguez. The group's objectives are to analyse the creation of an ERA for the social sciences, and assess the role of socio-economic research, both in itself and in its relation to other policy areas.

With such measures underway at a European level, Mr Marchipont feels that the time is ripe for a restructuring of socio-economic research at a national level too. He told CORDIS News that Member States should consider two courses of action: the opening up of national SE related programmes to the participation of other countries, and increasing cooperation between national socio-economic research at a European level.

For its part, the Commission will promote the importance of socio-economic research by refining methods for the impact assessment of such activities. Whereas in past framework programmes such an assessment has been carried out afterwards, Mr Marchipont describes the process under FP6 as being 'more continuous, and continuously updated'.

And, by being able to point more clearly to the social and economic benefits of both SE related and more general research, the Commission hopes that Member States, as well as private companies, will be encouraged to increase their levels of research funding and bring the Barcelona target of three per cent of GDP within reach.

In another practical initiative, Directorate K has also set up a reflection group of high level scientists who will map the state of the social sciences and humanities in Europe, focussing particularly on the candidate countries. This exercise will represent the extension of a methodology developed during a French government initiative carried out by Maurice Godelier.

With a clearer picture of the benefits of social research, together with a Europe wide reorganisation of the humanities and social sciences, Mr Marchipont believes that output will be better, credibility will be higher, and the relative priority given to social sciences will improve - an improvement he describes as vital, as: 'the importance of this field of research is increasing every day.'

For further information on citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society, please consult the following web addresses:

To find out more about the Commission's foresight activities, please visit: ome.html

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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