Waking up the sleeping giants? Towards a richer and more inclusive research environment in the Social Sciences and the Humanities

Miko Flohr, 16/11/2017

This is the text of a brief essay that I presented at the synergy conference of NWO’s Social Sciences and Humanities division held in Utrecht, on 16 November 2017.  

When I heard that NWO was going to merge its humanities and social sciences domains, I had my reservations – as had many colleagues. These were two large domains; they each had their own distinct character, and each already represented an exceptionally broad disciplinary paradigm. What good could come out of this? Yet the cautious way in which NWO is implementing the merger has, at least for now, taken away some of my doubts, and it is true that the new social sciences and humanities domain also offers some great opportunities, especially if it will be able to tweak funding instruments to the needs of the researchers that it serves.

In this way, the merger also would make sense:  while there are many differences between the social sciences and the humanities that cannot and should not be bridged, the two domains find each other in their institutional context: both humanities and social sciences faculties include a lot of academics whose careers primarily develop around teaching. Many of these lecturers are actually brilliant researchers, and they could produce work of the highest quality, but once they are more than a year or five beyond their Ph.D., and once they have missed the first major funding opportunities because they were too busy teaching, it becomes very hard for them to get a grant – they generally do not have the CV for the bigger grants, and there are very few grants for personal development after the VENI.

These lecturers are our sleeping giants. Their current situation is bad for them, but it is also bad for the social sciences and humanities as a whole, as a lot of intellectual capital is not being mobilized. Most research is being done by grant-holders, by their Ph.D.-students and by their postdocs, while ‘normal’ lecturers have few opportunities to enrich their teaching with exciting new research of their own. As many postdocs and Ph.D.-students move on to careers outside the university when large projects finish, a lot of ‘new’ research expertise is leaking away from academia. As teaching in many disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities is one of the most powerful vehicles for knowledge utilization, the impact of NWO-funded research is under pressure.

There is no doubt that the merger makes it easier to address these problems. Moreover, it is not a matter of inventing the wheel: good funding instruments already exist elsewhere. One example is the mid-career fellowship of the British Academy, which plays a key role within the Social Sciences and the Humanities in the UK by giving experienced academics two or three years research time and a bit of money to complete a major piece of research. This is not expensive, and it really helps. Arguably, we need to wake up our sleeping giants. Targeting this group with effective funding instruments would make our research environment richer, and more inclusive – and this would be one of the best forms of synergy that the new domain can possibly achieve.