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Social sciences can unlock the full value of new technologies - Prof. Luc Soete

Prof. Luc Soete says the Fourth Framework Programme was a turning point in EU support for social sciences. Image courtesy Luc Soete
Prof. Luc Soete says the Fourth Framework Programme was a turning point in EU support for social sciences. Image courtesy Luc Soete

Once seen as the Cinderella of EU research programmes in an era dominated by high-tech industries, social sciences and humanities are now essential to extracting value from research, says Professor Luc Soete, Rector Magnificus of Maastricht University, the Netherlands.

Why were social sciences initially seen as being of lower priority than ‘hard’ sciences?

‘If you look at the historical context and the role of the European Commission, EU research programmes emerged as an extension of industrial policy. Research policy was all about competitiveness; it wasn’t connected to university research or education. Almost by definition, social sciences and humanities were not high on the list of priorities at that time.’ 

What do you see as a major landmark in the evolution of EU support for social sciences and humanities research? 

‘The Targeted Socio-Economic Research (TSER) programme, under the Fourth Framework Programme, was a big one. With the rise of new technologies and high-tech industries, and the development of new services, there was a need to analyse the economic and social impacts of the changes that were taking place.’

What research questions could social sciences help to answer? 

‘Looking at the 1990s, there was for instance a big question about whether science and technology would create jobs or would in fact lead to unemployment. Digital technologies were emerging rapidly and ICT was having an impact beyond industry; it was having an impact on society.

‘When the Services Directive (to remove legal and administrative barriers in the services sector) was being crafted, there was also a lot of discussion about diversity in Europe – economic, social, linguistic, cultural – and how this impacts on industry in the EU. Pulling social sciences into the Framework Programmes then became very logical.

‘With the rise of new technologies and high-tech industries … there was a need to analyse the economic and social impacts of the changes that were taking place.’

Professor Luc Soete, Rector Magnificus of Maastricht University, the Netherlands

‘There is an incredible opportunity to look at how new digital technologies will change the way we deliver particular services. We would be in a much stronger position if more research had been done on the impact of digital technologies in a fragmented telecoms market.’ 

What kind of relationship needs to develop between social sciences and technology development, particularly in terms of EU projects? 

‘We are now living in a very different world from an industrial point of view (compared to when TSER was launched). Social and hard sciences are more integrated now; behavioural sciences are essential for research policy. When we talk about technology platforms – whether it’s ICT or life sciences; nanotech or food – extracting the value from these technologies requires much more understanding of social and behavioural sciences. Social sciences are now viewed as presenting opportunities for the creation of value.’ 

How important was the launch of the European Research Council (ERC) in 2007 and its commitment to fund social sciences research? 

‘When the ERC was created it was pretty obvious that it would include all research, including social sciences and humanities. It had a tremendous impact on this area, nurturing quality research by giving prestigious grants to young researchers, and promoting mobility for scientists. 

‘Of course, the amount of funding available could be more and mobility also creates issues of brain drain which are being addressed, but overall the ERC has made a significant difference.’