Below is the keynote address to the Conference ‘Innovation, Reflection and Inclusive Societies: The Role and Contribution of the Humanities and Social Sciences’ by Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn at the The Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, Tuesday, 7 May 2013.

It sets out a very clear and strong position regarding the value of the social sciences and humanities research and scholarship and it is heartening to hear a politician speak about HSS that both understands and champions why HSS is a vital part of the academy and the contributions it makes to society.  Certainly one of the best political speeches I’ve been in attendance at and I’ve no doubt I’ll be waving it under the noses of funders and university administrators quite regularly in the coming years.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here at the Royal Irish Academy at this Irish Presidency event. I would like thank the organisers, Professor Kelleher, Dr Geary and Dr O’Brennan, for inviting me.

As the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, over the last three years I have had many chances to discuss, with many top researchers, issues such as the science of climate change, innovation and new technologies in energy and transport, or breakthroughs in cancer research.

Areas like these grab the lion’s share of the research headlines and are sometimes perceived as the ‘hard’ sciences, in comparison to the ‘softer’ areas of research, such as the social sciences and humanities.

But to my mind, yours are the hardest sciences of all. If there is one thing that I have learned in my years in politics and public service, it is that nothing ever stays the same. The world is constantly changing.

And big changes force hard choices. Hard choices for politicians like me. We need the social sciences and humanities to analyse the options, situate the decisions and guide and inspire the choices.

Ireland, for instance, has seen profound changes in only the last five years, and many since it joined the European Economic Community forty years ago.

It takes great insight and depth of knowledge to really understand the changes and how they affect us.

We need to keep asking who we are and what our identity and culture means to us.

That is why the social sciences and humanities are more essential than ever.

They’re not the cherry on the cake or an indulgence when we can afford it.

We need them to understand ourselves, our society and the challenges we face.

A knowledge society needs to know itself, and the social sciences and humanities are the keys to do this.

They are the hardware of society, on which all the other sciences depend.

Society is hardwired by ethics, identity, belief, reflection, psychology and culture. There is no science without reason. No reason without understanding. No understanding without humanity. Without Greece, there is no Rome.

The scale and importance of the task demand excellent standards.

Excellent researchers generate new knowledge. And that’s what drives progress. And, if Europe is about anything, it’s about progress.

So, excellence in research is an aim in itself, and aiming for excellence is a conscious political decision that we have made at the European level.

I know that you share this ambition for the social sciences and humanities. Indeed, I understand that one of the primary goals of the Royal Irish Academy is to ‘vigorously promote excellence in scholarship’.

Excellence in the humanities and social sciences is as exacting a standard as excellence in the natural sciences.

And we need excellence across all disciplines, to create the research biodiversity that acts as the foundation of a sustainable knowledge economy and a vibrant society that produces the ideas and innovations needed to tackle its biggest challenges.

We also need this rich biodiversity of research disciplines to be ready for the problems and challenges that we can’t yet predict.  For example, we are now turning to historians, social scientists, political scientists and psychologists to make sense of the motivations, ideologies and identity politics that are leading to new conflicts and terrorism in different areas of the world.

Answers to the toughest questions can’t always be found in a laboratory. You are the key to decoding some critical problems, not least in Europe. Decoding is not just for DNA!

Europe has arrived at a critical point in its development, a development that has seen us shift numerous times between integration and fragmentation.

We need institutional and political innovation to resolve issues that weren’t even on our radar ten years ago. And for that to work, we need to understand our diversity and what binds us together. We need to understand each other’s histories and perceptions of the past. To plot any course, you need to know where you have come from.

We can’t improvise. We need to dig deep into our understanding of our history and our present, and deep into issues concerned with our identity and culture and our sense of belonging.

But events are moving so quickly that, in the heat of the moment, there is less and less time to dig deep, to reflect and weigh options.

So my challenge to you is to use your insights – whether societal, political, economic or cultural – to give us the answers we need, to provide clear options for Europe’s future.

‘Made in Europe’ doesn’t just mean cars, aeroplanes, chemicals or financial services.

It doesn’t just mean excellent design, world-beating food or fashion.

‘Made in Europe’ also means ideas, culture, art.

These are intrinsic to identity – whether we are talking about our identity as someone from  Dublin, or Ireland, or Europe.

As Jean Monnet, the father of the European project said… “If I had to do it again, I would begin with culture”.

The great movements that changed the world for the better were ‘Made in Europe‘: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution – Democracy itself.

Unfortunately, many of the most damaging movements and events were also ‘Made in Europe’, whether, genocide, colonialism or totalitarianism.

These ‘-isms’ are vital areas of research. Remembering and studying the past is essential to understanding the present and key to making a better future.

We see this in Ireland, where the past echoes in politics and everyday life, even as Irish society moves through immense changes.

Solutions to conflict and violence will only be found in understanding. And lasting solutions will only survive if we keep on remembering and we preserve and respect our cultures.  We will soon reach some very important anniversaries for Europe and Ireland. We will look to the social sciences and humanities to help us remember the events of 1914 and 1916 and understand how they still shape our world today.

The humanities and social sciences can influence nearly every aspect of our lives. Few of us perhaps realise the extent of that influence. So many concepts that were nurtured on the fringes of academic debate have moved into the mainstream and have profoundly altered the way we live.

Simone de Beauvoir, for example, thought that “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” Just think of the power of that idea. It revolutionised our lives, making us think that age-old stereotypes were not set in stone and eventually leading us to start breaking them down. This led to the entry of women into the labour force, probably the most significant and lasting change of the 20th century.

Europe is a world leader in SSH research. I want to help maintain that position. Indeed, I hope we can build on it and increase our lead. I am ambitious for the social sciences and humanities. I know you are too.

Our collaborative research programme in the Social Sciences and Humanities is already the world’s largest.

So far, over 2,000 institutions have participated in 200 projects under the 7th Framework Programme for Research – FP 7.

It will have invested an estimated 623 million Euro in Social Sciences and Humanities research by the time it finishes at the end of this year.

One of the success stories of FP 7 is the HERA network. It is made up of Humanities Research Councils from across Europe.

It links national research programmes and has resulted in the creation of two joint research programmes.

It is making an important contribution to the development of the European Research Area, and I am very pleased that Ireland is playing a leading role in it. I know that Professor Sean Ryder, who chairs it, is with us today.

It must be said, however, that only around 1% of participants in the FP7 social sciences and humanities programme come from Ireland, and those participants have drawn down less than 1% of the available funding.

I want you to work together to improve this record under Horizon 2020, and initiatives like the new Humanities Alliance is a very positive step in the right direction.

I am delighted that you have put such a strong focus on preparing for Horizon 2020.

The European Commission’s commitment to the social sciences and humanities will not  change under Horizon 2020.

But we want to do things differently. Multi-, inter-, or even transdisciplinary approaches are often needed to tackle today’s highly complex challenges.

That is why, instead of programmes dedicated to particular disciplines, we will have programmes focused on our biggest challenges, such as climate change, health and food, and energy security.  SSH in all its various disciplinary guises will be firmly embedded in each of these challenges.

The Commission’s proposal for Horizon 2020 has not, of course, been adopted yet, but this vision is shared by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

This is a bold, new vision. It will require openness on all sides. I know that there are major obstacles to multiple disciplinary approaches. I hope that the way in which we have constructed Horizon 2020 will help to encourage this kind of research.

For the vision to work, both humanities and social sciences researchers will have to be fully involved in the decision making about how the challenges are developed and implemented.

They must be present in the relevant advisory groups and programme committees. I will ensure that this happens.

The addition, at the request of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, of a new activity called ‘Reflective Societies’ is, I think, a positive step. It will allow us to better capture the full range of possible contributions of humanities research.

SSH research will also continue to be supported under the first pillar ‘Excellent Science’, including through the European Research Council, as well as the Marie Skłodowska Curie actions and research infrastructures.

In September, the next Presidency of the Council, the Lithuanian Presidency, will hold a conference on the future role of the Social Sciences and Humanities.

This will give us an opportunity to further discuss how best to apply, over a wide range of challenges, the knowledge, methods, and experience that the Social Sciences and Humanities have to offer.

Ladies and gentlemen, In his ‘Two Cultures’ lecture, over 50 years ago, C.P. Snow lamented the gap between the sciences and the humanities. He fretted that the sciences were  undervalued. In today’s climate, we may be at risk of making the opposite mistake.

But this debate as to the relative value of the arts and humanities is a senseless one. They are both valuable and they are inter-twined.

Europe is focusing on research, technology and innovation as ways to renew our economy. There is a strong justification for continuing to invest in these areas even when public finances are tight.

This can put the humanities and arts on the defensive, and similar economic arguments are used to justify expenditure in these areas.

The economic arguments are certainly there; just think of how important the content industry is becoming. It is a major focus area for us in Europe.

But the economic justification is a reductive way of looking at the humanities and social sciences.

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.

Indeed, I am reminded of John Henry Newman’s belief that students should receive a ‘balanced, well-rounded, tranquil and moderate’ education, which would produce freedom of thought.

He was right!

What matters is not whether a particular discipline belongs to the humanities, the social sciences or the natural sciences, but the quality of the scholarship. Excellence is the key.

So, I am a friend of the natural sciences, certainly, and a champion of the social sciences.

But I am also aware of what Matthew Arnold called “sweetness and light” – in other words, the intelligence and beauty that the humanities bring to life.

Thank you.