The Holocaust in Europe's Research Landscape: an Interview with Robert-Jan Smits

Monday, 7 April, 2014

Robert-Jan Smits is the Director-General of the European Commission's (EC) Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. He is responsible for the EC's Framework Programme 7 (FP7) that funds the EHRI project, and for FP7's successor programme, Horizon 2020. He is a long-standing supporter of EHRI and has kindly agreed to be interviewed for the EHRI Newsletter.

In a wide-ranging interview Robert-Jan Smits outlines the goals of Horizon 2020, reflects on the contributions that research infrastructures can make to achieve these goals, and stresses the scholarly, social, cultural and political importance of a project such as EHRI.

Horizon 2020: a new research agenda for Europe

Horizon 2020 - the biggest ever EU Research and Innovation programme - was launched in January 2014, and when asked about some of the programme's most distinct features, Robert-Jan Smits points to its very name. The decision to call the programme Horizon 2020, rather than FP8, is a deliberate and very important one: 'it signifies a break with the past', Smits says. Such a break from the FP7 model is evident in a number of areas. For instance, rather than focusing on a wide range of particular research themes, Horizon 2020 is structured around seven grand societal challenges that will be approached from inter-disciplinary perspectives and that range from questions about food security to the promotion of inclusive, innovative and reflecting societies. The programme also puts a clear emphasis on the importance of achieving impact and innovation by encouraging collaboration between researchers, industry and the citizen. Horizon 2020, finally, is a more open programme than FP7, granting researchers from third-party countries more opportunities to participate, and the programme as a whole has been radically simplified and streamlined.

However, Smits considers Horizon 2020's budget as the programme's most striking novel aspect. In a time of severe budget constraints, Horizon2020 boasts a budget of nearly EUR 80 billion, a very significant increase from the approximately EUR 50 billion that were allocated to FP7. He attributes this success in part to the in-depth consultation with all stakeholders that contributed to the design of the programme. But he also sees the increase as symbolically important: 'it demonstrates that people at the highest level, people such as Angela Merkel or David Cameron, regard research and innovation as key contributors to competitiveness, growth and jobs, and to solve the grant societal challenges we are facing.'

Humanities research and Horizon 2020

While FP7 featured dedicated programmes for the humanities and social sciences, this is no longer the case in Horizon 2020. Smits admits that this change in approach has led to 'debate and even uproar among these communities'. Questions such as 'are the humanities and social sciences not considered important anymore?' have been asked.

And yet, according to Smits, who himself has a background in history and international law, there is no downgrading of humanities and social science research in Horizon 2020, on the contrary! Smits has 'very high expectations for the humanities and social sciences', and wants them 'to come out of their disciplinary silos to help tackle the grand social challenges'. These challenges can only be solved if all the disciplines work together in partnership rather than isolation: 'for instance, neuro-degenerative diseases such as dementia cannot be fully tackled through new medication only, but wider social and economic questions need to be addressed as well: how do we deal with people suffering from dementia in society? Do we care for them at home or elsewhere? and so on'. For Smits it is pertinent that the humanities and social sciences play a much bigger part in answering such questions than has been the case in the past.

Similarly, Smits believes that the humanities and social sciences have hitherto not been sufficiently involved in promoting industrial innovation through public-private partnerships. The European Commission has supported a whole range of successful partnerships in this respect. Smits mentions the Innovative Medicine Initiative - a collaboration between the pharmaceutical industries and academia - that helped to speed up clinical trials, and let to a breakthrough in our understanding of autism; or the Clean Sky programme that involves the aeronautical industry to develop a new generation of aircrafts with a lessened environmental footprint. Such endeavours have traditionally not benefitted from the insights afforded by all academic disciplines. 'So far the humanities and social sciences have not been embedded [in public-private partnerships], but this has to happen in Horizon 2020', Smits concludes.

EHRI and the wider European research infrastructure landscape

Developing digital research infrastructures is one area where Smits thinks the humanities already hold a strong position. He regards infrastructures such as DARIAH and CLARIN as leading the way in dealing with the masses of data that have been generated through digitisation initiatives. Apart from collecting relevant data, these infrastructures have also made great strides towards ensuring that data are safely stored long-term, properly curated, and made easily accessible to interested researchers. EHRI, in other words, fits into a wider landscape of European humanities-based research infrastructures.

If the digital and virtual aspects of research infrastructures are therefore considered as crucial by Smits, he equally stresses that the human element in research should never be underestimated or forgotten. Activities such as training programmes, summer schools, and fellowship programmes are integral parts of research infrastructures. 'We don't want to communicate digitally only, but also to meet physically', Smits states, adding that 'digital methods - such as MOOCs [massive open online courses] - are additions to, rather than replacements of, direct human contact.'

History, the Holocaust and the future of Europe

The study of history, and especially the history of the Holocaust, are clearly subjects close to Smits' heart. In his estimation, historical scholarship is never a purely academic endeavour, but always also a basic social, cultural and political necessity.

Smits stresses the centrality of a profound understanding of our past to inform contemporary discourse and decision making. Some of the big questions facing Europe and Europeans today - the gap between governments and citizens, the rise of radical anti-European parties, the future of the European integration project - need to be addressed in an in-depth and wide ranging discussion. But such a discussion can only succeed if we understand where we are coming from. Smits is adamant that 'we can only talk about the future if we have a good knowledge about the past.' Understanding the historical experiences of World War Two and the Holocaust are especially important. Indeed, Smits regards these traumatic events as standing at the very basis of modern Europe: 'The Holocaust is an awful phenomenon in European history - one that should never be forgotten. The Holocaust marks the foundation of the European Union and the beginning of co-operation among European nations. It is a phenomenon that has profoundly shaped us.'

If historical knowledge is essential for informing our present and future, Smits believes that such knowledge must be disseminated and shared as widely as possible: ‘it is not enough to generate knowledge about the past through research; we also need to make the generated knowledge available to the citizens. That's increasingly important.'

By reaching out to all people, historians have an important role to play in informing, and keeping alive, cultural memories of our shared past. Smits judges the imperative to "never forget" as particularly important in regard to the Holocaust. With the generations having direct experience of the event gradually dying out, the need to keep the Holocaust high on the agenda takes on an added dimension. Smits stresses that EHRI has an important contribution to make to achieve this goal: 'For my parent's generation the war and the Holocaust are still a living memory - my mother still remembers how Jewish children were taken out of her school class - but young people need to learn about it as well, need to know. ... They need to know to be able to shape our society and to help them to become adults that respect one another and stand up for tolerance and human dignity. And EHRI needs to play a role here - not only through research, but increasingly by showing how we can reach out to the young generation. So for me, EHRI is not only about doing research, collecting and sharing data, it is about education and outreach, whereby I hope that increasingly new tools (for instance social media) will be deployed.'

Robert-Jan Smits was interviewed by Reto Speck (NIOD and KCL).