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Geography and Environmental Studies: Shaping EU policy and management of energy research and innovation funding

Dr Chris Foulds, Dr Rosie Robison, Prof. Aled Jones, Dr Sarah Royston, Dr Melanie Rohse, Dr Katrin Buchmann

The energy-related Social Sciences and Humanities (energy-SSH) research carried out by ARU provided impetus for the European Union (EU) to commit to further funding SSH in its research and innovation policies.

The research has been led by Dr Foulds and Dr Robison, focusing on energy-SSH issues, for example, future funding pathways, policy expectations of SSH, forms of interdisciplinarity, and inclusive approaches to funding/managing SSH.

They also led deliberative Horizon Scanning exercises, which identified energy-SSH research priorities in support of the EU’s energy/climate targets.

ARU was the only organisation delivering this policy advice role to the EU, and ARU coordinated all the research activities that underpin this advice.

Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO

Research summary

This case study brings an interdisciplinary team together from ARU’s Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) through several large projects. It is primarily linked to two EU Horizon 2020 projects, with the support of Prof Jones, Dr Rohse, Dr Royston and Dr Buchmann.

The research team focused on investigating the roles, understandings, contributions, and collaboration dynamics of furthering under-utilised Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) ideas in energy policy. To date, SSH have played less of a role in shaping mainstream energy governance agendas than Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

In the Social sciences and Humanities for Advancing Policy in European Energy (SHAPE ENERGY) project, ARU analysed EU research and innovation funding calls, finding that the Humanities were overlooked and that SSH disciplines focusing on rationality and individual agency.

ARU found that the ways in which SSH are being advocated by policy institutions direct energy-SSH towards very particular, instrumental modes of ‘interdisciplinarity’. Systematic literature reviews reiterated the need for embracing ontological/epistemological differences across SSH. The importance of being open to divergence was similarly demonstrated by a ‘Lexicon’ that highlighted different interpretations of disciplinary terminology.

In the Energy Social sciences & Humanities Innovation Forum Targeting the SET-Plan (Energy-SHIFTS) project, ARU found that current policy framings and policymaker expectations of SSH explain the fact that only 1-4% of total EU Horizon 2020 energy research and innovation funding has gone to SSH disciplines since 2014.

ARU also led on ‘Horizon Scanning’ exercises which identified research priorities that 400 energy-SSH researchers believed the EU should fund in Horizon Europe, if it is to achieve its Energy Union targets.

These deliberative Horizon Scans directly tied into four EU policy areas where there was clear commitment from the EU Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan) for significant investment during the 2020s:

  • Renewables
  • Smart Consumption
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Transport & Mobility

The team's findings included specific energy-SSH recommendations for investing, for example in transformative governance, energy democracy, inequity and inequality, socio-ecological effects, power relations, engagement and trust, and unintended consequences in everyday life.

Close up of a woman holding a mobile phone charging an electric vehicle with cable

Summary of the impact

  • Ensured that SSH was embedded into the design of EU Framework Programmes, funding policy-relevant research and innovation
  • EU’s Innovation and Networks Executive Agency (INEA) now prioritises inclusion of SSH researchers on their proposal evaluation panels
  • Benefits for all EU citizens, and citizens of Horizon Europe associated countries such as the UK


ARU-led research and engagement brought about a close working relationship with the European Commission’s (EC) Directorate-General for Research & Innovation (DG RTD).

ARU’s advice ensured that SSH was embedded into the design of the EU Framework Programmes that fund policy-relevant research and innovation, for example, Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe. These are two very large-scale programmes, Horizon 2020 energy work programmes alone have been worth €6bn since 2014 and the Horizon Europe programme totals €95.5bn.

By significantly impacting the EU’s funding priorities, ARU has in turn shaped the policy approaches behind the EU’s world-leading energy and climate targets. ARU was the only organisation delivering this policy advice role across the broad spectrum of energy-SSH research to the EU, and ARU coordinated all the research activities that underpin this advice.

The EU committed for SSH to be a priority for Horizon Europe. During monthly calls to the EC’s DG RTD, it was demonstrated by ARU what the implications were of Horizon 2020’s inadequate integration of SSH, and thus emphasised how more mainstreaming work was needed to sufficiently embed SSH ideas within its investments that are set up to combat societal challenges.

Following direct engagement by ARU, the EU’s Innovation and Networks Executive Agency (INEA) also now prioritises the inclusion of SSH researchers on their proposal evaluation panels, as part of ensuring that the EU’s SSH mainstreaming ambitions are shaped by SSH research communities themselves.

Via a training event, ARU engaged the DG RTD team responsible for monitoring the EU’s commitment to SSH funding. It was clear that ARU evolved their thinking, given that their 4th Monitoring Report repeated core messages provided in the ARU-authored Research & Innovation Agenda for energy-SSH in Horizon Europe.

ARU also changed the thinking and evidence-gathering plans at EU policy level, the EU Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan) Steering Group and its associated Implementation Working Groups.

We were invited to present to EU Member States via the EU SET-Plan Steering Group, this help change thinking and built EU momentum behind the possibilities provided by energy-SSH insights. The presentation led the Steering Group to re-engage with energy-SSH, as there had been no engagement in any SSH issues.

Following the success of the EU SET-Plan Steering Group, SSH policy discussions continued with specific SET-Plan Implementation Working Groups.

ARU ensured that SSH-inspired commitments, for example, co-creating solutions with citizens; anticipating future societal challenges; recognising technologies’ unintended consequences were incorporated into €1.1bn spending in European Offshore Wind.

This impact on EU SET-Plan policy making was reiterated further by Dr Foulds and Dr Robison being invited back to present to the EU SET-Plan Steering Group on SSH synergies with Implementation Plan developments.

Without ARU’s involvement, EU strategy and implementation concerning energy research and innovation would remain constrained to technological silos such as Solar PV, Ocean Energy, etc.. Indeed, ARU additionally co-organised an ‘SSH integration’ masterclass for energy technologists with both DG RTD and DG ENER

ARU also worked closely with the European Energy Research Alliance (EERA) – which is the EU’s formal ’research pillar’ of the SET-Plan – helping it to further realise the potential of SSH. The relationship with EERA also facilitated further impact on the policy priorities discussed by EU SET-Plan communities.

Read more about read about how aru changed eu set-plan strategies, influencing eu and member state policy directions on €71.5bn of energy research and innovation funding .

ARU was asked by DG RTD to provide recommendations for their annual energy-SSH funding calls, there was clear evidence that our suggestions led directly to the wording of these calls. For example, the H2020-LC-SC3-2020’s call on ‘Energy Citizenship’ was what ARU had recommended when discussing inclusive engagement, and the H2020-LC-SC3-2019’s call on ‘Challenges facing carbon-intensive regions’ included the rise/role of populism that ARU also recommended.

ARU was also instrumental in guiding INEA’s thinking on how funding calls were constructed, helping them realise that the call wording used will attract certain types of SSH research communities, and would also attract certain ways of identifying different policy solutions.

ARU’s impact on the directions of Horizon 2020 calls was enhanced by Dr Foulds’ reviews of draft Horizon 2020 energy calls, on behalf of the UK delegation, as a member of the UK Government Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) Energy Efficiency Stakeholder Group.

Other EU Member State and Associated Country delegations, who were also tasked with reviewing energy funding calls for their countries, similarly incorporated SSH into their thinking and review activities.

Read more about read more about how aru ensured the policy foci and precise call wording of €30m+ eu energy research and innovation calls explicitly accounted for ssh.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We have mapped our REF 2021 impact case studies against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, are an urgent call for action. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

This case study is mapped to SDG 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, target 7.2.

See also

Read the full REF 2021 impact case study for UoA 14: Shaping EU policy and management of energy research and innovation funding

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