Square pegs and round holes: research funding and disciplinary legitimacy in STS

Square pegs and round holes: research funding and disciplinary legitimacy in STS

The subplenary of Pierre Benoit Joly, Maja Horst, Robin Williams and Fred Steward as chair presented their perspectives and invited the audience to discuss the challenges and opportunities for STS scholars in seeking successful engagement with Horizon 2020, the new European Commission funding framework for 2014-15. The call for bids is framed as an appeal for responses to societal challenges, of which it was suggested that challenge 6, “Europe in a changing world – inclusive, innovative and reflective societies” is a likely target for the STS community. This observation came out of the Vilnius conference “Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities” earlier in the month (for which Fred Steward’s report is on the EASST website), which outlines the strategic goals for integrating social sciences and humanities research with those of Horizon 2020.

The plenary opened with the broad question about how EASST can influence these programmes. It spoke strongly to the conference theme of “Situating Solidarities: social challenges for science and technology studies”, echoing the challenge of tackling the tensions that arise from the identity and legitimacy issues in STS whilst exploiting the community’s interdisciplinary strengths.

Horizon 2020 recognizes that new modes of research and knowledge creation associated with scientific and technological innovation must include interdisciplinary research. This gives EASST members a unique advantage in the sense that they may be ‘pushing an open door’ where the experience of the STS community in handling epistemic diversity, and the multi-domain expertise of members can be a source of value.
It was noted by Pierre Benoit Joly that there is a predictable tension arising from the perceived dominance of economically driven research agendas in the European Commission – seen as influencing the success of funding bids. Competing on this basis creates a requirement to fit within these frames of reference. It was enlightening as an early career researcher to hear Robin Williams speak about the harsh realities of chasing research funding in that there is evidently significant work involved in bridging the gap between stated and ‘real’ success criteria for projects the European Commission is willing to fund. He observes a need to be able to interpret the bid criteria around this implicit agenda and to identify the people in the Commission who can support this.

Accessing the expertise of advisory groups is easier than in the past, with opportunities to get involved with the public consultation exercises in some strands, and it was suggested that having more reviewers in the system would improve understanding of how the system works among the EASST community.
Overall, bidding demands engagement with a complex policy network and pro-active management of the process, requiring that we as a community establish and expand our footholds in the Commission in order to focus our efforts effectively. Suggested strategies include sharing the costs of engagement activity as a means of supporting collective action, and accounting for bid development costs within bids. In this respect standalone projects are vulnerable and there is a need for capacity building in STS so that projects can be turned into a stream to build sustainability.

Maja Horst highlighted a perception among STS researchers of a lack of understanding outside the community about what STS is, and in relation to bidding this is manifested in the challenge of communicating how the community can add value. There is a sense among STS scholars that it is hard to find collaborators for bids and that STS is seen as ‘PR’ for other people’s projects.

Investing time in building informal links with other departments in our own universities is one approach to raising our profile in terms of engaging with research communities with whom we could potentially collaborate.
Much of the discussion centred on the double-edged sword of STS researchers’ interdisciplinary expertise, noting that the STS community, unlike natural science, can be seen as somewhat fragmented, with researchers coming from backgrounds as diverse as history and environmental science, and this discontinuity might undermine our ability to influence. There is therefore a need to integrate the community to provide ‘strength in numbers’, with the potential for EASST to act as a hub in coordinating members’ responses to Horizon 2020. There is a need to target areas to invest efforts and we must be wary of losing opportunities to contribute by neglecting less obvious strands.

Whilst this kind of integration is more challenging for some STS scholars than others depending on our disciplinary allegiances, we are of course not isolated in the sense that they are part of research communities within our universities, and might fruitfully frame our potential contributions as providing the ‘missing ingredient’ in bids in other disciplines. We might, for example, smuggle STS into research agendas in other guises and expand ‘shadow’ research projects.

It is also important to build relationships with those in university administration who support bids. This means not only to valuing those who write papers but also individuals involved with the project development, bidding and project management ecosystem that supports successful bidding and delivery of projects.
Finally, there is a need for EASST to support pathways for those at the start of academic careers to get access to and involved with EC funding bids, by facilitating networking and strengthening the ability of EASST members to collaborate. We need to be clear in communicating the STS research agenda and understand the market for our research interests, and in this respect presenting a strong sense of disciplinary identity can be a vehicle for generating more widespread understanding of STS. In approaching Horizon 2020 this demands critical assessment within the community with respect to what we do, and ‘getting our hands dirty’ in taking up opportunities to demonstrate our value.

Author Information

Mhorag GoffMhorag Goff is a researcher and Associate Lecturer at the University of Salford; imminently completing a PhD in the Information Systems, Organisations and Society research group. Her PhD thesis is a critical investigation of electronic patient records in the NHS in England using Actor-Network Theory to understand how they benefit clinical work practices. She has a particular interest in research topics related to ethics, philosophical and critical approaches to understanding information systems.