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Call for EU to take a role in setting out career paths for social sciences and humanities students

27 Jun 2018
ERC president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

Social sciences are needed to solve the ethical dilemmas posed by new technologies and innovations, but the increase in the number of social sciences graduates in recent years has not done the job, says European Research Council president

By Florin Zubascu

Projects in the social sciences and humanities crisscross the European Union’s next research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe, but Europe needs to work on improving the employment opportunities of social sciences graduates, said stakeholders at a Brussels meeting organised by ERC=Science2 on June 18.

Many European countries are seeing a significant increase in the number of students in social sciences and humanities, but there is a need to broaden the education they receive and to build bridges among different disciplines, European Research Council (ERC) President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon told delegates.

Barbara Weitgruber, director general of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Research, agreed Europe’s labour market does not always have obvious career tracks for social sciences students. The EU should step in to carry out an “overview of a set of measures to address this issue,” Weitgruber said.

While the career paths are not laid out, it is clear that many sectors of the economy need an input from social sciences, said Bourguignon. The digital sector, for example, is not only about producing new software and communications infrastructure. It needs social sciences and humanities to embed ethical and political concerns into its products and services. “Otherwise it would be superficial,” Bourguignon said.

Social sciences and humanities expertise is also crucial in tackling pressing issues such as fake news and the ethics of artificial intelligence and gene editing, according to Claire Foulquier-Gazagnes, policy manager at Google Arts and Culture.  “Technology needs more and more scientists thinking about ethics,” she said.

Clare Moody, MEP, agreed social sciences should be applied to explore the reasons behind radical shifts in society and politics, saying, “The consequences of not getting social sciences and humanities right are Brexit and Trump.”

In the face of these gaps in applying social sciences, there is a need for the EU to use the next research programme, Horizon Europe as, “An opportunity to strengthen social sciences in order to reduce distance between its policies and citizens,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research Intensive Universities.

What social sciences can do for Europe

Social sciences projects funded by the ERC have demonstrated a value and an impact on public policies. 

With the help of an ERC grant, Maarten van Ham, professor of urban renewal at Delft University of Technology, is studying the geography of richer and poorer households. The question is, “Does it matter that poor and rich households are increasingly living separate lives in European cities?” said van Ham. His research assesses the impact of living in poorer neighbourhoods on education, career prospects and health.

In other ERC-funded projects, Margarida Calafate Ribeiro, senior researcher at the University of Coimbra, is studying post-colonial memory to find out why European countries are going through identity crises; Valentina Vadi, a professor of international economic law at Lancaster University is analysing international law to find best practices in resolving the conflict of interests between economic development and the protection of cultural heritage sites; Alexandros Kioupkiolis, assistant professor of political theory at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, is studying the impact of citizens’ cooperation, with the aim of developing a new theory of democracy and social integration.

The next steps towards Horizon Europe

Earlier this month, the European Commission published its proposal for EU’s next research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe. That will see ERC getting a sizable €3.5 billion increase in its budget compared to the current programme, Horizon 2020. But as a percentage of the total programme, the ERC increase is less than one per cent. University associations have said this is unsatisfactory.

Bourguignon is confident that the ERC will continue to fund social sciences and humanities projects under Horizon Europe.  “For sure I don’t anticipate that ERC will have a different attitude towards social sciences and humanities in the future,” he said.

But, universities argue that the ERC should get more money, including for frontier research in the social sciences. The budget should, “build on the proven strength of the ERC,” said Palmowski.

MEPs would also welcome a more ambitious budget for the ERC. “The added value that comes with that collective investment is hugely important,” said Moody.

Universities want to see the Commission include at least one social sciences-led mission in Horizon 2020, to prove its commitment towards its importance, said Palmowski.

The missions are precise objectives, modelled on the US Apollo moonshot in the 1960s, that researchers and companies would be invited to seek EU funding to achieve.

However, Moody disagreed, saying the Commission should to resist the idea of “boxing social sciences in a separate mission.” Rather, missions are likely to involve more than one discipline.  

The budget and the differences of opinion over social sciences research will be settled in upcoming negotiations in the European Parliament and Council. With the European elections fast approaching, the EU has less than a year to do so. The Austrian presidency starting at the beginning of July aims to get Horizon Europe negotiations closer to the finish line by the end of its mandate in December.

“We want to progress as much as possible on Horizon Europe negotiations,” said Weitgruber.

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