The European Union’s Horizon Europe programme offers significant research and development opportunities for businesses, the traditional university sector, and technological universities (TUs) and institutes of technology (IoTs). However, a crucial difference in this latest round of EU funding is the explicit requirement to include social sciences and humanities (SSH) disciplines in consortia applying for funding.

Historically, the inclusion of such SSH disciplines in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) projects has often been marginal. This article explains some of the reasoning behind this new EU requirement and outlines principles for joint working across traditional boundaries. 

Horizon Europe

Horizon Europe became operational in 2021. Running until 2027, it is the European Union’s (EU) primary funding programme for research and innovation with a dedicated budget of €95.5bn. Horizon Europe aims to tackle a series of societal challenges such as climate change, support the United Nations' (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and boost the EU’s competitiveness and growth.

Specifically the programme is largely structured around three pillars (Excellent Science; Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness; Innovative Europe) and five missions (Adaptation to Climate Change mission; Climate-neutral and smart cities mission; Cancer mission; Soil Deal for Europe mission; Restore our Oceans and Waters mission).

The Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness pillar includes six clusters examining issues such: health; culture, creativity and inclusive society; civil security for society; digital, industry and space; climate, energy and mobility; food, bioeconomy, natural resources, agriculture and environment.

Although in many ways Horizon Europe is simply the latest round of EU research, development and innovation (RDI) funding, there is one significant difference. In past rounds of such funding the inclusion of a humanities or social science perspective in proposals was often little more than an add on.

All too often this ‘bolted-on’ appendage appeared to be little more than window dressing. This situation often tended to leave both those in STEMM and those in the arts, humanities and social sciences alike feeling dissatisfied.

Even when there were attempts at ‘crossing the divide’, the two broad fields often worked rather separately, and there was little real opportunity for meaningful engagement, relationship building and peer learning.

Social sciences and humanities

Horizon Europe aims to be different. The inclusion of SSH researchers in any consortium bid is a requirement. Therefore researchers and developers from STEMM backgrounds who wish to take advantage of the significant funding opportunities that Horizon Europe offers need to anticipate working substantively with disciplines that may in many ways feel ‘alien’ to them.

Future Horizon Europe projects will therefore necessarily include such disciplines as: anthropology and ethnology; economics; business and marketing; human geography and demography; education; communication; history; humanities and the arts (archaeology;  area studies; ethics; interpretation and translation; languages and culture; literature; linguistics; philosophy; religion and theology); political science; public administration; law and legal studies; psychology; and sociology.

Of course the reality is that simply mandating the incorporation of SSH personnel into consortium funding proposals does not in itself guarantee the successful inclusion of these perspectives. Significant challenges remain. Even within the SSH disciplines there is a strong history of a lack of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work.

A silo mentality in many disciplines is the norm. For many SSH academics and practitioners the idea of working with colleagues in STEMM may not quite be beyond the pale, but it would certainly be a very rare event. The one exception may be the eclectic, magpie-like discipline of geography, which has long claimed to provide a unique integrating synthesis. However, the norm in many fields is to be insular.

It is not difficult to understand the logic behind the requirement to integrate SSH perspectives more centrally into the EU’s research, development and innovation funding programme. Many of the challenges we face as both an international bloc, and globally, exhibit hyper-complexity. One factor solutions often appear to only aggravate other issues. It is clear that more rounded, holistic and integrative perspectives and solutions are required.

Arts, social sciences and humanities

However, it must also be acknowledged that within the arts, social sciences and humanities (ASSH) there has been resistance to developments to incorporate their approaches into EU funding schemes such as Horizon Europe and Horizon 2020.

For example, some have argued that AHSS disciplines are only deemed valuable as long as they conform to dominant STEMM perspectives around knowledge production(1,2).

Others have critiqued the explicit focus on the social sciences and humanities which, ostensibly at least, appears to neglect the creative arts. ASSH practitioners and researchers have long bemoaned the inadequate proportion of funding their disciplines have received vis-à-vis STEMM subjects.

Diverse perspectives

In reflecting upon the decision by the EU to mandate the inclusion of such diverse perspectives in consortia responding to societal challenges it is hard not to think of the 'Blind Men and the Elephant' parable from the Buddhist text, Tittha Sutta.

In this parable six blind men approach an elephant for the first time and try and determine what exactly it is. The one who touches the trunk declares it a snake, while the one that explores the tails says it is rope. A tusk is mistaken for a spear and an ear for a fan. The last two men respectively mistake the elephant’s side for a wall and its leg for a tree trunk(3).

Past failures

In order to better understand the need to involve SSH personnel more effectively in the development of new technologies, products, or methods it is important to examine a prime example of the failure to incorporate such diverse perspectives.

One of the most obvious examples of this is the significant public resistance that exists to genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe and elsewhere(4).

Although GM crops are grown in a number of countries for animal feed, their use in human food production globally is extremely limited. Despite decades of evidence of their safety the public at large have been heavily influenced by highly energetic and effective non-governmental organisations (NGOs) campaigning against the use of GM organisms (GMOs)(5).

Agribiotech firms have continued to try and use logic, reason and science to articulate their arguments. However, these have proved largely ineffective against arguments that play on fear, politics, and conceptions of what is ‘safe’ and what is ‘natural’. 

SSH strengths

A more contemporary example demonstrating what SSH disciplines can offer may be seen in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic response. There are many facets to this issue.

For example, with the large-scale closure of many sectors of the economy and government warnings to stay at home and not mingle, many people both entertained themselves and increased their knowledge through exploring museums, art galleries, heritage institutions and cultural pursuits online(6).

Although such developments undoubtedly helped many appreciate what the SSH disciplines had to offer society, it is perhaps in relation to vaccine hesitancy and the pandemic that the SSH clearly demonstrated their potential.

Concerns over the possible ill-effects of vaccines date back more than a century. However, the publication in 1998 of a study purportedly linking the MMR vaccine and autism in The Lancet significantly fuelled this debate globally. Although the study, which involved just 12 children, and was part-funded by lawyers acting on behalf of parents already suing vaccine manufacturers, was later retracted, the reputational damage to vaccines in the public mind had been done(7).

Vaccine hesitancy initially appeared to threaten the success of the entire Covid-19 vaccination campaign at a time when hospitals and health services were already reeling under the strain of exponentially increasing case numbers. This was particularly obvious in the US where precarious private hospital systems struggled to continue operating as their delivery of routine health services, and associated income derived from them, dried up.

Resistance to vaccination in the US was notably strong, where it took on strongly political and ideological elements. The input of SSH disciplines can be seen for example in the US where, as a result of widespread vaccine hesitancy, a new campaign focused around the message ‘It’s Up to You’ was developed by the Ad Council.

This campaign was based on an acknowledgement that the US was both too politically and racially divided to appeal to any sense of unity and civic duty, and too disbelieving of government to simply comply with directives.

Instead a bipartisan group worked with the Ad Council to develop a message that implied taking the vaccine was a personal decision, not a command, and yet carried with it an implied responsibility(8). This campaign also targeted specific ethnic and racial groups, with for example one specifically targeting Hispanic populations aimed at Abuelita/Grandma.

‘Wicked’ problems, complexity and diverse approaches

Highly complex and intricate and apparently insurmountable problems are sometimes referred to as ‘wicked problems’. A prime example of such a problem is global warming. This is exactly the type of issue which requires SSH as well as STEMM input. A comprehensive understanding of the issues involved is vital. Single factor solutions will, even if adopted, undoubtedly simply produce other problems.

Although such ‘wicked problems’ and the missions and challenges outlined in Horizon Europe will require consortia that combine the strengths of both STEMM and SSH perspectives achieving such integration will require considerable effort in both camps.

It will require time to develop mutual understanding and ways of working together. What makes this particularly problematic is that applications for EU funding are often typified by a last-minute frenetic scramble for partners across countries, disciplines and genders.


It is important therefore to consider both foundational principles for joint collaborative working, as well as the lessons from SSH integration into Horizon 2020, the EU’s latest major RDI funding programme(9).

The development of mutual understanding, relationships and knowledge about ways of working are vital. However, all of these take time. The importance of time cannot be overemphasised in the development of cohesive teams from wildly disparate backgrounds.

Successful Horizon 2020 projects indicate that it is essential that the differing disciplines meet both early in a project, and continuously throughout its lifetime. Evidence suggests that such meetings, particularly in the early stages, should be physical face to face meetings. A guaranteed schedule of meetings is important.

Communication and trust

Other crucial take-aways from Horizon 2020 include the need for clear and ongoing direct communication. All disciplines have their respective lexicon and it is important that all participants overtly clarify their terminology, assumptions and methods to prevent misunderstandings.

The opportunity to safely ask questions and seek clarification in this process is vital. Mutual respect is crucial throughout the process, and an environment that fosters this builds trust, a vital component in joint working. Risk taking, be it personally, professionally, methodologically or conceptually, can be critical in developing disruptive technologies and solutions. Trust is vital in such risk taking.

Time, effort and forgiveness

Finally, the effort involved in forging such new alliances and partnerships should not be underestimated. Time is important, but real engagement requires effort and not only capacity, but a willingness to undertake the required mental and emotional labour involved.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that forgiveness will undoubtedly be a crucial element in maintaining cohesive and functioning teams. Inevitably misunderstanding and differences will develop and emerge within teams.

Mistakes will be made, and approaches will differ. The ‘obvious’ and ‘sacrosanct’ in one discipline may seem vague, unnecessary or irrelevant in another. Forgiveness combined with both time and dialogue will be essential to move beyond potential fractures. It should be noted that experienced and trained facilitators can be extremely useful in aiding the integration of diverse perspectives.


Horizon Europe requires new ways of working and new partnerships. Interdisciplinary working across STEMM subjects now requires expansion to incorporate SSH perspectives. This is highly likely to be extremely challenging across all disciplines.

Many people will have to move out of their comfort zone if they are to take advantage of the opportunities offered in Horizon Europe. Those consortia that are best placed are probably those that have already developed working relationships across the STEMM-SSH divide.

For those would-be applicants that do not have such pre-existing relationships, time is of the essence. It is vital to start developing these relationships early.

Ongoing, regular communication and discussion is vital to develop mutual understanding, mutual respect, and supportive environments. Finally, forgiveness is important as the development of productive teams from disparate disciplines and perspectives will likely be a bruising and disorienting process at points for all involved.

Authors: Dr Frank Houghton is a public health geographer and director of the Social Sciences ConneXions research institute at the Technological University of the Shannon in Limerick. Ben Houghton is a mechanical engineering graduate employed as a production engineer at Shortt Stainless Steel in Annacotty, Limerick.


1) ECHIC – European Consortium for Humanities Institutes and Centres. (2021)  Lisbon Declaration on Humanities, Open Research and Innovation.

2)  Academia Europaea 2012 On the situation of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Europe.

3) Saxe JG (1868) The Poems of John Godfrey Saxe. Boston, MA: Ticknor & Fields.

4) Burke D GM food and crops: what went wrong in the UK? Many of the public's concerns have little to do with science. EMBO Rep. 2004 May;5(5):432-6. doi: 10.1038/sj.embor.7400160. PMID: 15184970; PMCID: PMC1299063.

5) Paarlberg R A dubious success: the NGO campaign against GMOs. GM Crops Food. 2014 Jul 3;5(3):223-8. doi: 10.4161/21645698.2014.952204. PMID: 25437241; PMCID: PMC5033189.

6) Feinstein L 'Beginning of a new era': how culture went virtual in the face of crisis. The Guardian, 8th April 2020.

7) Eggertson L Lancet retracts 12-year-old article linking autism to MMR vaccines. CMAJ. 2010 Mar 9;182(4):E199-200. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.109-3179.

8) Montgomery D How to Sell the Coronavirus Vaccines to a Divided, Uneasy America. The Washington Post Magazine, 26th April 2021.

9) Net4Society. (nd) Success stories in SSH integration.