“European research provides direction and capacity to accelerate green and digital transformations”

Jean-Eric Paquet has been Director-General at the European Commission’s directorate-general for research and innovation (DG RTD) since April 2018. Paquet started working with the executive body in 1993 and since then has worked in various areas throughout the Commission. We asked him how he sees the role of Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) within the European research field.

Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) are regularly referred to as one of the key constituents of research and innovation, especially regarding the green and digital transitions. Could you tell us a bit more how you see this happening in practice? 

“We need social sciences and humanities – not only in Horizon Europe projects but also in research projects at a national level – to gain insights into how society sees these green and digital transitions. We need SSH-research to prepare societies for change and to really become greener in time, and to digitalise societies. Up-to-date knowledge is essential because many of these changes in a society cut across sectors: like the energy transition, transport transition or circular economy. We need knowledge also to see whether society is ready to pick up certain technologies.

But I also think research can do two more things. First, it can create space to experiment. Many of the big changes will not happen only with nudging; we also need to experiment. Of course, this has to be done largely at a national and local level. But at EU-level we certainly support experiments as well.

Last, social sciences and humanities will be critical in helping us define the right technologies to drive these green and digital transformations. In A.I., for example, different possibilities are available. If you want A.I. to be driven by ethics by design, you need a big amount of input from social sciences and humanities.”

What is it that the European Commission needs and expects from the Social Sciences and humanities? Where and how could we as Erasmus University Rotterdam be of most help to you in dealing with the greatest challenges of today and the future?
“In addition to the first reply: universities have a rather special position; they are the centers of society. First, because they conduct place-based research and social experimentation. Usually, also because they are located in urban areas where a lot of these experiments are needed and take place.

Furthermore, the elements I mentioned in reply to your first question are also deeply connected to education. So, universities being at the intersection of education and research, are indeed powerful actors to listen to society and to change society.”

We heard that DG RTD is working on ‘flagging of SSH types of projects’. What do you mean by this?

“There are going to be at least three drivers to support SSH. The first one is the program itself, which will have a cluster devoted to social sciences, humanities, law, economy, the rule of law and European values. We have an intervention area dedicated to democracy, for example.

There will also be significant support, already existing today, and I expect it to grow because the budget grows, from the European Research Council. The ERC is funding excellent research in Europe and has always considered SSH a priority. An example is Eveline Crone, one of the vice presidents of the ERC Scientific Council, who is also a grantee of the ERC. She is thinking in disruptive ways, she brought psychology very much forward, first in a Dutch context and then she built a very strong European team.

The third driver I would say is that SSH needs to inform decisions. We are now finalizing the texts for the work programs for 2021 and 2022, and also the calls for proposals. We will have research in agriculture, in food, in climate, in cities, and we will particularly pay attention to the questions of relevance for society. For this, we expect input related to social sciences and humanities. For example, we hope to see social experimentation or social innovation as a component of the research proposed.”

“We hope to see social experimentation or social innovation as a component of the research proposed”

Jean-Eric Paquet
Director-General at the European Commission

Is it realistic to expect the contribution of SSH in Horizon Europe to be about 20-25% of the total HEU budget as presented by DG RTD? How can the European Commission ensure such a contribution, if, for example, the Covid19 emergency call has attracted an impressive 162 proposals from social sciences and humanities of which only four could be funded?

“This is a slightly distorted picture. What is correct is that there was a massive response from social scientists when we launched this call for proposals. It was a very broad call, where we did not cover only societal or epidemiological answers to the crisis, or the impact of the pandemic on the organization of our societies – that was indeed part of the call. Still, there were many other areas as well. So yes, we retained four projects out of the 162. This proves the large scope of the interest of SSH actors across Europe for European research, and that is very positive. I can well understand the low success rate is a frustration. On the other hand, these four projects were four SSH-projects out of the 20-25 projects we retained in total, that is the point of comparison.

Another thing that might be interesting to mention is that this high number of proposals, 162, reflects the fact that the social sciences and humanities disciplines are not always sufficiently funded at the national level. In my opinion, another discussion needs to take place: to push member states and convince them how important these disciplines can be and why they should therefore also invest more in these disciplines.”  

What is your vision on the future of European research in general?

“European research adds value and structures the research happening in the 27 member states. It is not distinct; it connects, adds value and structure. It is research based on the best science in the world. We have the best science in Europe out of our universities, and it will provide direction and capacity to accelerate the green and digital transformation.”