European funds for interdisciplinarity and the social sciences and humanities: lessons to be learnt?

By Olivia Bina

In January 2017, as part of the COST Action INTREPID on the role of interdisciplinarity in research programming and funding, we organised an international conference to discuss the status of the social sciences and of interdisciplinarity in occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Gulbenkian Commission’s publication: Open the social sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the restructuring of the social sciences (1996).

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Immanuel Wallerstein keynote. Photo: João Cão

As part of this event, we planned a Special Session to discuss the status and challenges of the social sciences and humanities (SSH) and interdisciplinarity in European Funding. This included six invited speakers and discussants, followed by a workshop designed as a world café session, aimed at identifying a range of recommendations towards informing the next programming period (FP9) from the perspective of interdisciplinarity, SSH and responsible research and innovation (RRI), and possibly contributing to improvements for the final programming stage of H2020 (2018-2020) and input to FP9. A policy brief will soon be published on INTREPID’s website, detailing all recommendations. Here, I’d like to focus on the main areas of discussion, concern and recommendation around interdisciplinarity and SSH.

Interdisciplinary research: paradox or gap?

We start with a possible paradox. Interdisciplinarity is being encouraged in science policy discourse and among funding agencies. It is considered a central quality of EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, which targets Societal Challenges designed to cross disciplinary boundaries in order to address complex and interdependent problems. And yet, scholars who study interdisciplinarity, and institutions that track its progress, tell us that it remains poorly rewarded in terms of funding, recognition and career advancement. More than a paradox, as some suggest, this situation may be pointing to an increasing gap between the definition of science policy and in particular its research funding agenda on the one hand, and the status, structures and governance of one of the providers of such research: universities – on the other.

University: late-comer of left behind?

In her keynote, Felicity Callard delivered a compelling talk on the importance of interdisciplinary experimentation, illustrating through her own research, ‘how to harness the promise and liveliness of an interdisciplinarty space’. Her account seems a far, if inspiring, cry from the many voices criticizing universities’ performance in creating and enabling such ‘spaces’.

Even the carefully worded position of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), argues that ‘disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are equally important to advance science and to solve unprecedented societal challenges’. And yet, in 2016, their report lists 66 recommendations, which are often a re-wording (and a necessary update) of findings and recommendations voiced over decades. Not least by the Gulbenkian Commission (1996) whose report’s 20th anniversary gave rise to our conference: ‘Foundations may give grants to imaginative groups of scholars but departments decide on promotions or course curricula’.

Our focus in INTREPID – and at this Special Session – is research programming and funding, based on the understanding that, as Lyall and others have demonstrated, ‘decisions that funders make … have a major impact on how interdisciplinary research is shaped, the extent of integration, and ultimately its effectiveness’. Yet, the keynote presentations and the discussions during the World Café left little doubt that universities were both ‘late-comers’ (see Lawrence) to the rethinking of disciplines and interdisciplinarity, and at risk of being left behind as science policy takes its own direction, almost irrespective of academia’s well documented challenges.

In 2004 two reports explored EU funding’s performance in terms of interdisciplinary research. Bruce and colleagues found that the EC could not deliver better interdisciplinarity alone since ‘many of the constraints operating against interdisciplinary research emanate from academic systems in European universities, which still discriminate against inter-disciplinary research’. The same year the European Research Advisory Board-EURAB (2004) recommended: 1) a reassessement, where useful, of disciplinary demarcations; 2) a removal of institutional barriers to interdisciplinary research; 3) a rethinking of associated research training. LERU’s 2016 report revisists, updates and expands on similar governance changes.

Are the ‘institutions of learning’ giving enough space to discuss the obstacles and changes? Even if to conclude that they do not agree with some, or most, of the science agenda(s) pressing for greater interdisciplinarity? It seems not. While ‘LERU is convinced that academic institutions should remain the primary locus of scientific knowledge production and transmission’, many at our Conference noted that research is increasingly taking place elsewhere, in private funded organisations and enterprises. This is to be welcomed, since the challenges of the 21st century need all the attention they can get. But concerns were also raised in terms of oversight, privacy and other ethical dimensions.

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Conference Keynote Speakers, Final Panel: Callard, Wittrock, Wallerstein, Mäki, and Turner. Photo: Olivia Bina

Innovation battleground: where are the social sciences, the humanities and the arts?

As mentioned, EU’s H2020 programme represented a major shift away from a structure based on disciplinary areas, to one based on Grand Societal Challenges (later the ‘grand’ was dropped’, from GSCs to SCs), intended to promote largely interdisciplinary inquiries. Consistent with the history of European research funding from the 1950s onward, which was driven by industrial competition (e.g. EURATOM and CERN) and then economic innovation (1990s onward with Framework Programmes), these SCs are largely reflective of a techno-scientific understanding of innovation. As Peter Fisch argues in his keynote, the interpretation of innovation in current EU programmes remains far too ‘technological’. Attention, and funds, for the role of social innovation in addressing SCs remains limited, by comparison (see for example TRANSIT).

Our conference keynotes repeatedly warned against such bias. In his keynote, Bjorn Wittrock listed ‘grand questions’ including the role of the EU in today’s world, what is life and what relation between human and non-human, which all required the contribution of SSH (and I would add, the arts).

The EC has produced a second monitoring report by Birnbaum and colleagues (2017) on ‘Integration of Social Sciences and Humanities in Horizon 2020: Participants, Budget and Disciplines’. This was presented by Philippe Keraudren, of DG Research and Innovation (Unit B6 Open and Inclusive Societies), highlighting the following numbers:

  • Overall, 37% of topics were ‘flagged’ for SSH in the WP 2014-2015, and 41% in WP 2016-17.
  • Involvement of 827 SSH partners in 197 projects in 2015.
  • The share of budget going to SSH partners  (i.e. € 197 million) amounts to 5% of the total 2015 budget of €3,7  billion and 22% of the budget of SSH-flagged topics of €888 million (which includes the Arts).
  • Concentration of funded SSH partners coming from a handful of countries (6 countries account for 52% of funded SSH partners): UK, Italy, Germany, Spain, Belgium and France.
  • Quality of SSH integration in projects funded under SSH-flagged topics in 2015: Good: 39%; Fair 29%; Weak 18%; and None 24%.
  • Discipline prevalence in SSH-flagged topics in 2015 by percentage share of expertise – highest: experts in economics 26%, and lowest: in geography and demography 1%. See table.

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The 5%

Inevitably, the figure that stands out is the 95% of funds going to all other disciplines that are not SSH and the arts. Despite the effort to further strengthen the integration of SSH in programmes and calls, it is difficult not to view these results as falling short of expectations. Especially considering it is almost impossible to see any improvement compared to the previous report by Hetel and colleagues (2015). On this basis, many questions and concerns could be raised. I shall mention one of each based on the discussions held in January: how responsible are the representatives (institutions and individuals) of SSH and the arts for their lack of integration, and most importantly leadership? Some have argued that a shift is needed, from victimisation to empowerment. In our blog series on the role of the social sciences, there are some important reflections around this question. As for concerns, I would like to point out a potential ‘elephant in the room’: perhaps it is not the 5% to the SSH and Arts that should worry us most, but rather the destination and direction of the remaining 95%. The latter contributes to build our future through techno-science in all fields from human health to possible uses of resources located in outer space. Apart from a contribution of economists (judging from the table above), what other disciplinary perspectives and worldviews are being brought to bear in the framing of problems and solutions? The answer to this question is likely to have a direct impact on our future.

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World Café Interdisciplinarity Table. Photo: Olivia Bina

Towards a set of recommendations for EU research funding programmes

On the basis of the above themes and many others raised throughout the Special Session, here is a summary of key recommendations (a full list will be published here) aimed at the final research programming period of H2020 and the next (9th) EU Framework Programme:

  1. The EC should give meaning to the concept and its practice in funding programmes: Interdisciplinarity (ID) is not a goal, nor an obligation, nor should ID be watered down by suggesting that a whole EU Framework Programme is ID in its coverage, nor should ID be equated with the problem of integrating SSH in the current programme. A definition, even if broad, would help in terms of guidance and during evaluation.
  2. The EC should diversify its programming: reduce the current focus on WP calls in favour of: more open calls (see, for example, the experience of ERC discussed by Angela Liberatore) even when linked to target areas, and more bottom up definition of priorities (including by scholars themselves: ‘give researchers some credit’!).
  3. SSH integration (and ‘flagging’) is not enough: thepractice of flagging SSH-relevant themes in current WPs is useful but does not address the bias of the overall programme and of the interpretation of the societal challenges; responsibility also lies with the SSH community, which should find its voice (‘from victimisation to empowerment’) in contributing to shape the research questions that will need answering.
  4. The EC should change its Evaluation Panels: it could do more to draw from existing international reviews of good practice to shape its own guidance (Lyall: ‘disciplinary evaluation panels look for disciplinary weaknesses, not for interdisciplinary strengths’); ID is a competence and requires competent researchers to be present in panels evaluating ID proposals; similarly, proposals responding to SSH-flagged calls should be evaluated by panels including experts with SSH competence.
  5. Training is needed: ID research entails a different way of thinking and collaborating that requires training, among other: in facilitation, in listening, in creative thinking.Thus training is recommended in multiple areas: a) Universities should promote ID-specific training for teachers and for researchers; b) The EC should train staff in DG R&I so that it is more familiar with the characteristics and qualities of ID research; c) The EC should consider funding online training courses for evaluators to obtain the necessary competences for evaluating ID research.
  6. The answer is moretime and funds, not less: ID research requires more time, and more funding. Just completing an integrative literature review will add a significant additional step in a research process.
  7. Licence to fail: the current ethos of research, funding, and general performance evaluations throughout academia is increasingly less likely to accept failure. This goes against the grain of experimentation and creativity (see Felicity Callard) in general, and of ID in particular, given its high-risk implications.
  8. Proponents should define IDin their proposals: what is their interpretation of ID, and even more importantly: why is it required, and how will it be carried out?
  9. Universities must do much more to support ID among the young: plenty of evidence shows that early career researchers risk being significantly disadvantaged if they pursue ID paths. LERU’s report provides ample food for thought.

EURAB’s 2004 report opens with the following quote:

“Knowledge is extracted from a fully integrated world. Knowledge is ‘dis-integrated’ by disciplinary units called Departments in Universities. How can knowledge, discovery and dissemination be re-integrated?”

Richard Zare, BioX initiative, Stanford University

There have been many recommendations intended to help address these questions, before, and after 2004. Our Special Session has added a new layer to the pile. But is anyone listening?


Olivia Bina is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department of Geography and Resource Management of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and Member of the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS).

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