EU-flaggor framför en kontorsbyggnad.

Gender perspective is weak in the EU’s forthcoming research and innovation programme

2019-03-04 09:58

The EU countries’ ministers for innovation and research have now agreed on the fundamentals for the EU’s forthcoming research and innovation framework programme, Horizon Europe. But many experts describe the wordings dealing with gender in research and gender equality in academia as far too vague in the current proposal.

Horizon Europe stakes out the direction of European research cooperation and sets the framework for how EU research funding will be used from 2021 to 2027. A total of EUR 100 billion will be distributed within the programme, having an enormous impact for European researchers.

At the end of November, the ministers for innovation and research in the EU Member States agreed on the fundamentals for the programme, but the negotiations are far from over. Jesper Werdelin Simonsen, Executive Director of the Division for Society and Health at the Research Council of Norway, would like to see a clearer focus on gender and gender equality in the programme, and this issue has also been raised by the Norwegian Government.

Jesper Werdelin Simonsen. Photo: Norges forskningsråd

“The gender equality issues at stake here are about giving all researchers equal opportunities and about getting the most out of our talented individuals. This last aspect is crucial if EU-funded research is to remain competitive,” he says.

He also points out how vital the gender perspective is in the content of research if you want to conduct high-quality research:

“The gender perspective has helped us to see things that we haven’t seen before. If we don’t have in mind the fact that our society is very diverse, the research we conduct will not be as effective at responding to the societal challenges that we face,” he says.

The EU a yardstick for others

Since Norway is not part of the EU, its government is not directly involved in the negotiations on Horizon Europe either. But as a partner country in research and innovation cooperation, Norway is able to submit comments. The Swedish government has drawn attention to gender and gender equality issues in written communications to the EU and in the negotiations in Brussels.

“We would like to have the same level of requirements in this European research and innovation programme as we have nationally in Sweden, and we are not there yet,” says Christian Hansen, Desk Officer/Head of Section for the research policy section at Sweden’s Ministry of Education and Research.

Gender and gender equality issues are not entirely missing in the current proposal for Horizon Europe. The programme states that the EU is to strive for gender balance in its panels and expert groups. The importance of the gender perspective in research is also taken up in the programme. But according to Christian Hansen, these issues are not highlighted as clearly as they are by the research councils in Sweden.

“Although these issues are included, the wordings are much clearer in the documentation governing the Swedish Research Council for example,” he says.

Sweden has been one of the driving forces for the inclusion of wordings on gender mainstreaming and wordings requiring gender balance to be taken into account in the selection of independent experts, according to him.

But he also thinks that Sweden has managed to get important wordings into the current proposal that were not there in the first proposal for Horizon Europe, which was presented last summer. Sweden has been one of the driving forces for the inclusion of wordings on gender mainstreaming and wordings requiring gender balance to be taken into account in the selection of independent experts, according to him.

“We have highlighted the gender perspective more clearly in key places so that it will apply to the whole of the framework programme. The EU distributes a lot of funding to Swedish researchers. So it is important that the requirements are at a level that we find acceptable,” says Christian Hansen.

He explains that Sweden’s basic philosophy in negotiations within the EU has been that the programme should be designed in such a way that the best applications are those that receive funding.

“We know that applications are dealt with differently depending on the researcher’s gender and we must move away from this,” he says.

He and the Research Council of Norway would like to see clearer guidelines on how objectives such as gender balance in expert groups are to be achieved.

Jesper Werdelin Simonsen thinks that the wordings concerning gender and gender equality are weaker in the current proposal for Horizon Europe than in the EU’s current R&I framework programme, Horizon 2020. He and the Research Council of Norway would like to see clearer guidelines on how objectives such as gender balance in expert groups are to be achieved. How the programme is worded is not just important for EU-funded research. It also sets the tone for how other research financiers choose to relate to these issues, he claims.

“The EU research programme will be a yardstick for others and that is why it is so important that the requirements are clear and the demands are set high. And of course it is also important that the EU puts pressure through Horizon Europe on those Member States that have chosen to ignore these perspectives,” he says.

He warns that even the current vague wordings concerning gender and gender equality may face resistance from conservative forces in work on the programme moving forward.

“I fear that the wordings will be weakened even further because some countries are so aggressively against gender equality,” he says.

Threats to gender studies

Jesper Werdelin Simonsen names in particular the situation in Poland, where a strong anti-gender studies movement has emerged, and Hungary, where the government wants to ban gender studies altogether. But there are also a number of stakeholder organisations within the EU that are calling attention to gender and gender equality issues, in particular when it comes to Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe. One such example is the national advocacy platform for the EU’s Science with and for Society (SwafS) framework programme which aims to promote effective cooperation between scientists and society as a whole. Such cooperation is essential for research to be able to help address the biggest societal challenges of our time, according to the platform. Before work on Horizon Europe began, the platform submitted their input to the EU, describing their vision for the coming research and innovation programme. Among other things, they highlighted gender mainstreaming as a vital tool.

So far, the discussions around Horizon Europe have mainly centred around the rules governing how research funding will be allocated. Moving forward, there will be a greater focus on the content of research.

Maria Hagardt. Photo: Vetenskap & Allmänhet

“It is important to ensure that the gender perspective is written into the programme as one of the criteria in calls for proposals. But it is also important to highlight gender studies separately as an important field of research in which there is a need for more knowledge,” says Maria Hagardt.

She is the coordinator of the SwafS advocacy platform and also responsible for international relations within the organisation Vetenskap & Allmänhet (VA Public & Science), which aims to promote dialogue between researchers and the public.

Christian Hansen believes that Sweden will push for the need for gender studies in one way or another, but he does not think that Sweden’s representatives will work to ensure that funding is earmarked for this purpose.

“We want to avoid the risk that discussions like this might lead to us locking in funding for all manner of fields of study. On the other hand, we want to ensure that the option to conduct research in gender studies exists within the framework programme. At least some of the calls for proposals must be relevant for gender studies researchers,” he says.

Author Charlie Olofsson
show more news ›