Social sciences and humanities (SSH) must be a more prominent recipient of the European Union’s Horizon Europe energy research and innovation funding opportunities – some €100bn for the 2021-2027 period. This was the call to action at Brussels’ first ever conference dedicated to SSH research in the field of energy.
The 22 January event was organised as part of the SHAPE ENERGY H2020 EU-funded project, a €2m European platform for energy-related SSH research. Hosted by Friends of Europe, a SHAPE ENERGY partner, it highlighted that this research has the potential to help address pressing societal challenges but is currently significantly overlooked and underfunded.
In 2016, only 4% of Horizon 2020’s energy research budget went to SSH research, while 96% went to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies. “Energy research is neglected and dominated by a technology focus,” explained Rosie Robison, principal research fellow at the Global Sustainability Institute from Cambridge’s Anglia Ruskin University, a leading SHAPE-ENERGY consortium member.
The conference highlighted how SSH research would make a “just transition” to a more sustainable future easier by providing a better understanding of how cities and citizens operate. It also emphasised the importance of bridging the gap between social and scientific policies to achieve an inclusive transition that leaves no one behind.
Getting enough money for this is important, noted Aziza Akhmouch, Head of the Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development Division, at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities.
However, she added, “We also need to look at the social costs and policy trade-offs required.” The recent ‘Gilets Jaunes’ protests in France not only show the impact of the fuel tax, but also a demand for more research to understand what motivated so many people to join the protests.
At this key time, ahead of the next EU election and the accompanying college of Commissioners, the European Commission Deputy Director-General for Research & Innovation Patrick Child agreed, “We must work much harder on integrating the social and human dimension into all our policies.” However, setting a specific figure or percentage target for research funding was not the answer, he told the meeting: “It’s unhelpful to have headline figures that would push us in the direction of segregation and division.”
The aim should be to radically transform the way we live, Belgian Socialist MEP Kathleen Van Brempt summed up, while understanding the difficulties of doing so at the same time.
Phasing out coal and giving up the combustion engine may be a good thing, but their immediate abandonment would take away jobs in some parts of the EU and generate unnecessary inequalities by prioritising a hasty energy system transformation. Van Brempt, also Vice-President for sustainable development at the Socialist and Democrats Group Bureau, admitted: “That’s why we need to take a just transition approach and social sciences can help us implement that in a proper way.”
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