Pivoting policy priorities to change the way we live, work and play


Climate, Energy & Natural Resources

Picture of Chris Foulds
Chris Foulds

Professor at the Global Sustainability Institute of Anglia Ruskin University

Picture of Rosie Robison
Rosie Robison

Professor at the Global Sustainability Institute of Anglia Ruskin University

Photo of This article is part of the SSH CENTRE project
This article is part of the SSH CENTRE project

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Friends of Europe is part of the consortium for the SSH CENTRE project, the new centre of excellence for the social sciences & humanities (SSH) across the Horizon Europe Cluster 5: Climate, Energy and Mobility. It will bring SSH insights to the fore in transition-related policy and practice to accelerate the EU’s transition towards carbon neutrality.

Supported by 13 leading organisations from across Europe, the project engages directly with stakeholders – including researchers, policymakers, business representatives and citizens – to strengthen social innovation, SSH-STEM collaboration and transdisciplinary policy advice. Issues related to open science, inclusivity and diversity – especially with regards southern and eastern Europe and different career stages – are at the heart of the project.

The SSH CENTRE project aims to ensure that the concerns of citizens aren’t left behind and that SSH thinking is introduced to policymakers working on the European Green Deal.

What are the social sciences and humanities (SSH)? One way to put it is that researchers working in SSH are interested in how societies operate. For example: how people live, work and experience the world around them. In particular, the social sciences are interested in how and why people act in the way they do. The humanities are interested in questioning what is desirable and what the implications of people’s actions may be. In this way, the social sciences offer immediate suggestions for how to design and implement policy interventions that drive forward particular policy priorities and ambitions (e.g. the use of behaviour ‘nudges’ or understanding how social systems affect access to new schemes), whereas the humanities offer reflections on if those policy priorities are the most appropriate course of action (e.g. ethics, fairness, inequalities and legalities).

There are thus many ways in which SSH can offer unique insights on sustainability transitions. After all, the demand for energy – and, for example, transport infrastructure – only exists because of the way people live, work and play. And yet how we live, work and play must change in radical and significant ways, and quickly too, if Europe’s ambitious climate change targets are to be achieved. SSH is the route for understanding (and monitoring) how many of these changes can be done and with what implications.

There are many unique insights that are only attainable through SSH. For example, SSH can make visible the often taken-for-granted assumptions and habits of everyday life. It can usefully put the spotlight on the mundane. SSH can also provide stories that fruitfully narrate even the most objective, quantitative scientific or technical evidence. Similarly, SSH methods around stakeholder engagement and facilitation, for instance, can be usefully deployed to more technical/scientific domains with great effect. But fundamentally, in democratic societies, it’s increasingly important to take SSH research seriously, so that key decision-makers can better understand what they can do to deliver responsible social outcomes for all.

This embracing of contexts can mean that conclusions are rarely generalisable across other member states

Yet, disappointingly, SSH has traditionally been overlooked in favour of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research. Not only has the EU consistently funded significantly more research and innovation in STEM compared to SSH, but our experience also shows that policymakers are quicker to seek out STEM insights over SSH, for example, in expert groups.

Yes, certain policymakers intentionally exclude SSH because of the importance that they attach to technological development and roll out. However, it may be that SSH is often excluded, less intentionally because of unspoken ways in which it is thought about and viewed within policymaking systems. It would seem that everyone can feel like an SSH expert. We have found people, whether policymakers or citizens more widely, to be more questioning of SSH than STEM, as they can quickly digest and relate the SSH evidence to their own daily lives and ideologies. Moreover, politicians can feel like they ‘know’ citizens and understand people; after all, it is what led to them being elected in the first place. This can all lead to formal SSH expertise and insight being backgrounded by policy communities, who either do not believe SSH is important enough or think (consciously or not) that social issues can be sufficiently covered by those already around the table.

Over the years, we’ve had many positive conversations with policymakers who have been really enthused about what SSH can potentially offer. However, there have been some frustrations around how SSH can struggle to give simple answers. Politicians want neat, tidy and objective answers, which is in direct tension with the subjectivities that SSH embrace. For instance, many SSH researchers will look in-depth at how context shapes the ways in which particular communities may respond to policy interventions. But this embracing of contexts can mean that conclusions are rarely generalisable across other member states. Moreover, the different methods used by different research communities can make it difficult for policymakers to compare insights. After all, SSH is a broad church and includes a range of different SSH communities with different starting positions and assumptions.

It is not just about what gets achieved, but the way we got there, as well as the trajectories that those processes are pushing society towards

The value SSH can bring means that tackling these issues is worthwhile. Take, for example, the idea of a just transition for all of Europe, an idea which is actually derived from SSH research. Potential insights range from: how to support marginal and traditionally excluded voices within decision-making; to exploring the unintended consequences of well-intended policy initiatives; as well as the employment prospects associated with the rise and fall of renewables and fossil fuel industries, respectively.

To end, we wish to emphasise one key recommendation: involving SSH in policymaking should not merely be about better end-points, but about better processes. It is not just about what gets achieved (e.g. how many wind farms), but the way we got there (e.g. stakeholder participation), as well as the trajectories that those processes are pushing society towards (e.g. what capacity has been built up in society to ensure continued positive action for all on climate change?).

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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