The European Parliament and EU member states are now discussing the Framework Programme (2014–2020), proposed by the European Commission. Unless the current text is properly amended, funding for research in social sciences will almost completely disappear from the main ‘cooperative research’ (now ‘Societal Challenges’) programme. But I argue that the growth and governance of the European Union is a ‘Societal Challenge’ in need of excellent socio-political and economic research.
The Europe 2020 strategy sets four priorities: three on growth (it must be ‘smart’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘inclusive’) and one on economic governance. It also sets five targets: on employment, on R&D and innovation, on climate change and energy, on education, and on poverty and social exclusion. The new Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (2014–2020) – proposed by the European Commission (Council of the European Union, 2 December 2011) and now under discussion – should, in itself, help to attain one of these targets (R&D and innovation), and it also assigns 38.5% of its proposed €87,749.402 million to fund research that “responds directly to the policy priorities and societal challenges identified in the Europe 2020 strategy”.
Europe 2020 priorities and targets are, to a large extent, socioeconomic and political issues. They are also complex and difficult to attain. Today, the European Union, far from being “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world (…) with a 3% expenditure on R&D over GDP by 2010”(Lisbon 2000 and Barcelona 2002), is not yet even in the aftermath of its main crisis.
The same European Commission forecasts that “real GDP is expected to stagnate in the EU and to shrink by 0.3% in the euro area in 2012,” (European Commission 2012a) and the EU has had to change many rules of the game while trying to survive the crisis:
- The monetary union has changed, since the ECB is no longer just following its ‘price stability’ mandate; and
- The new Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance(see European Council 2012) opens the door to a new form of fiscal union.
Traditional forms of welfare states which characterised ‘the Eurpean model’ are under threat by the same fiscal restraint that the new treaty imposes – in particular, the targets on education and on poverty and social exclusion are far from trivial in the new framework. The European Union and Eurozone governance are being questioned by the crisis, in that the main decisions have been intergovernmental more than ‘communautaire’, with a German lead more than a European Commission or European Parliament lead. The same national parliaments have seen their powers eroded, while the need to ‘save the financial sector’ has taken priority, and Europe is reaching record times in unemployment levels, the threat of major social conflicts, and loss of power in the world. The phantom of a euro breakup still has not disappeared.
With these lofty aims set against the dismal reality, one would expect the European Commission to be calling upon the best social scientists to better understand what is happening and how to achieve ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ in this context. Instead, research funding for social sciences and humanities has basically disappeared from the main cooperative research programme.
According to the new Framework Programme, the six Societal Challenges are:
- Health, demographic change, and wellbeing;
- Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research, and the bio-economy;
- Secure, clean and efficient energy;
- Smart, green, and integrated transport;
- Climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials, and
- Inclusive, innovative and secure societies.
One can even agree that these are among the challenges that Europe does face (I will not go into details here) and that, as the European Commission concedes “social sciences and humanities research is an important element for addressing all of the challenges” (European Commission 2011). However, the same closed list, and the supporting role given to social sciences research, read as a research agenda for a Europe that has already resolved its current socioeconomic and political crisis and is in an advanced stage of smart transport and climate action – a most wishful Brussels perspective…
Unfortunately, I am not surprised by this wishful thinking by European Commission. Let me provide a couple of somewhat personal final remarks. When I was chairing the committee to evaluate the financial mechanisms of Framework Programme 6, I asked the Director General of DG Research why there was almost no funding for research on emplyoment issues. He replied that this was what the member states had decided. I felt trapped, since as Spanish Secretary of State for Science and Technological Policy I had been not only responsible for the Spanish position, but also for the FP6 negotiations between the European Commission, Council, and Parliament. But I understood the trap. In discussing all the long EC documents, there was always something more urgent, for example, whether to provide funding for stem-cell research.
In the autumn of 2008 I joined the Expert Advisory Group for Socioeconomic Sciences and Humanities, whose task was to advise DG Research in the drafting of the corresponding Work Programmes, which for the first time included main ‘challenges’. The first thing I said was: if ours had been a Life Sciences Advisory Group in the middle of a global viral plague, the spotlights would have been on us for having provided so little funding for research on the virus. However, being social scienctists maybe no one would check on us in the middle of the main financial crisis since the 1930s. Fortunately, FP7 permitted the introduction of the issue as a ‘challenge’ in the 2011 calls. But even in 2009 one had to strongly argue that ‘the future of macro-economic and monetary integration in Europe’ was a ‘challenge’, to finally see it recognised as a ‘collaborative project’ (small- or medium-scale focused research project) in the 2011 calls.
I am no longer an expert advisor for DG Research, but I can see that FP8 (also called Horizon 2020) moves a step further away from the focus on socioeconomic research with its six Societal Challenges. If approved in its current format, it will not even be possible to address Europe’s main socioeconomic and political challenges, even if they are part of the Euro 2020 strategy, or among the main concerns of European citizens (eg unemployment). Fortunately, the best social scientists understand the importance of these issues and in the end FP8 may finance the corresponding research through the European Research Council (16.1% of the proposed PF8 budget, ie less than half of Societal Challenges). But then, if the menu of Societal Challenges is not changed, probably the best move would be to substantially increase the funding for “excellent social sciences and humanities research,” at the expense of the current Societal Challenges budget. I am confident this will stimulate excellent research – beyond what the current Horizon 2020 envisions – on a particular Societal Challenge called “the growth and governance of the European Union”.
European Commission (2011) “Proposal for a Council Decision establishing the Specific Programme Implementing Horizon 2020” 2011/0402 (CNS), 30 November.
European Commission (2012a), “EU interim forecast: on the brink of a mild recession”, Economic and Financial Affairs, 23 February.
European Commission (2012b), “Horizon 2020 – Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (2014 - 2020)”.
European Council (2012), “Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union”, 2 March.