Thirty million euros for social cohesion research: 5 questions 

A group of scientists led by UG professor Rafael Wittek secured the coveted Dutch Research Council (NWO) Summit Grant, worth over thirty million euros, for social cohesion research. What will they do with the money and what does this grant mean for the university?

Why is the Summit Grant such a big deal?

Because it’s a one-time grant which offers research funding for ten years for scientific consortia which belong to the absolute world top, or are very close to it. The goal is to promote research of exceptional quality and achieve major breakthroughs. 

The total grant is 174 million euros, which is split between five consortia. One of those is SOCION, an interdisciplinary research collaboration on social sciences and humanities. 

The consortium comprises the UG – which coordinates the research – Utrecht University, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Radboud University, and demographic research institute NIDI. 

What will the money be used for?

Social cohesion is what keeps society together, but it is increasingly undermined due to community erosion and polarisation between groups, explains UG professor of theoretical sociology Rafael Wittek, the lead scientist. SOCION aims to find new ways to restore this social cohesion. ‘We have this ambition to do research with societal stakeholders, so addressing specific challenges in society’, says Wittek.

The money will fund a ten-year programme called SCOOP, a research and training centre dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of sustainable cooperation. It connects research groups from sociology, psychology, history, philosophy, public administration, research methods, and statistics.

More specifically, Wittek explains, the grant will be allocated towards hiring impact managers to implement theory-based solutions, funding data collection and organising conferences, as well as hiring PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. 

How will SOCION help solve societal issues?

Developments like climate change, an ageing population, and migration can trigger social disruption, Wittek says, but those are complicated problems to tackle.

Take the internationalisation issue, he says. ‘On one hand, the government is urged to restrict migration to solve the housing problem, but then other stakeholders, such as employers, firmly say that they depend on internationals. This is an example of how one solution can lead to the unravelling of a new problem. The challenge is to find balance.’

Complex problems like these require solutions from integrating multiple knowledge disciplines and related stakeholders; from academia to real-life implementation. ‘The process goes from identifying the problems and the scientific evidence and theories behind them, developing an intervention, monitoring its effectiveness and learning from it to prevent future problems. This is not easy,’ he says.

Isn’t thirty million euros too much money to fund a research collective?

‘No’, says Wittek. ‘With the amount of research groups that we have and the ten-year period, that’s around 250, 300 thousand euros, per group, per year.’

‘I’ve heard people ask, instead of bundling the funds and a group of researchers hoarding it, why not give the money to fifty PhD students and postdocs? Undoubtedly, this will also yield good research. But our programme allows us to bundle forces among related fields and practical stakeholders, so we can work towards solving bigger problems.’ 

For social science fields, it can be difficult to secure funding, compared to for example natural sciences, he explains. ‘Let’s say in medical sciences, they need forty million for an MRI scanner: people would not bat an eye. But for us, the money is in people conducting research, such as archival research, text analysis, interviews, big data crunching, which also requires a lot of funding.’

What does this grant mean to the university?

‘Without the grant, there’s a lot of scarcity’, Wittek says, referring to the major budget cuts for higher education. ‘For young scholars, this is a disaster, because you do research together with others, PhD students and postdocs, so if you don’t have an opportunity to hire postdocs, then you have to do everything yourself.’ 

He hopes, therefore, that the money is seen as a breath of fresh air in tough times.

The grant will also be beneficial to UG students who are interested in pursuing research on social cohesion, says Wittek. ‘We have various initiatives targeting master students and research master students, like a blended intensive programme and summer schools. So that’s a part of the plan to reach out to students and also give opportunities for internships, for example. And of course, today’s master students are tomorrow’s potential PhD students participating in the programme.’

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