Social sciences are a compass in demanding times
Opinion: While hard facts are vital to knowledge, the humanities help us make sense of it all
European commissioner for research, innovation and science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn: “Events are moving so quickly that there is less and less time to dig deep, to reflect and weigh options. That is why social sciences and humanities research is more essential than ever.” Photograph: Paul O’Driscoll
If there is one thing you learn in politics, it is that nothing ever stays the same. The world is constantly changing. And big changes force hard choices, especially for politicians. Science and research are invaluable for decision-makers, and it is usually the so-called “hard” sciences that grab the headlines. Social sciences and humanities are just as necessary if we are to understand ourselves, our society and the challenges we face.
Answers to the toughest questions can’t always be found in a laboratory. Biological and physical sciences are necessary to explain climate change, but social sciences and humanities are crucial in designing a response. We have to understand the effect climate change has on our society, and whether people will buy into the cure the hard sciences propose.
Ideologies and identities
When we want to understand armed conflicts and terrorism, we turn to historians, social scientists, political scientists and psychologists. They are the ones who can make sense of motivations, ideologies and identities, and propose solutions that go to the core.
Europe has arrived at a critical point, a development that has seen us shift numerous times between integration and fragmentation. Ireland has seen profound changes in only the last five years, and many since it joined the European Economic Community 40 years ago.
We need institutional and political innovation to resolve issues not on our radar 10 years ago. We need to understand our diversity, our culture and what binds us together. We need to understand each other’s histories and perceptions. To plot any course, you need to know where you have come from and who you are.
Events are moving so quickly that there is less and less time to dig deep, to reflect and weigh options. That is why social sciences and humanities research is more essential than ever.
The EU research programme in social sciences and humanities is the world’s largest, with an estimated €623 million invested over the last seven years. Our commitment to funding excellence in the social sciences and humanities will not change under Horizon 2020, our next EU research and innovation programme.
However, we do need to tackle today’s highly complex challenges differently. That is why, instead of creating silos for each discipline, we want to embed social sciences and humanities in our response to challenges such as climate change, health and food, and energy security. There will be a challenge area on inclusive, innovative and reflective societies to capture the full contribution social sciences and humanities can make.
Funding drawn down
It must be said, however, that Ireland is not doing as well as it could in EU research. Only about 1 per cent of participants in the FP7 social sciences and humanities programme come from Ireland. Those participants have drawn down less than 1 per cent of the available funding, compared to nearly 1.5 per cent on average across the whole programme.
So my challenge to Irish academics is to work together to improve this record. At a conference at the Royal Irish Academy this week, I saw the social sciences and humanities research community putting a very strong focus on preparing for Horizon 2020.
Initiatives like the new Humanities Alliance are a very positive step and will be welcomed right across Europe.
There is a strong justification for continuing to invest in these areas. Still, the economic justification alone is a reductive way of looking at the matter. To borrow an idea from Oscar Wilde, a society that focuses only on the economic benefits of knowledge is one that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
So let us celebrate and support the social sciences and humanities. We may have decoded the human genome, but we are far from decoding the DNA of our society.
Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is European commissioner for research, innovation and science. This is an edited extract from a speech she gave yesterday at a conference on Innovation, Reflection and Inclusion: the Role of the Humanities and Social Sciences , organised by University College Dublin, Maastricht University and NUI Maynooth