The development of infrastructures create completely new possibilities for research within the humanities and the social sciences. This is what Joakim Palme, Professor of Political Science, argues.

A revolution for research

Svenska 2015-02-26

Infrastructures are perhaps mainly associated with natural science research, but now it is developing within the humanities and within the social sciences. “This can revolutionise research”, argues Joakim Palme, professor of political science at Uppsala University.

Joakim Palme is the chairman of the evaluation panel that is tied to the Swedish Research Council’s Council for Research Infrastructures (RFI). He is hopeful about the future.

“It is as though a large European laboratory is taking shape”. The infrastructures are ensuring that we are getting access to research material at both an individual and at a macro level, which is creating entirely different conditions and possibilities.

Joakim Palme is talking about a paradigm shift that is allowing more cooperation to take place, both nationally and internationally. And not just between the humanities and social sciences but also between natural sciences and medicine.

“Traditionally researchers have worked independently. Collaboration is slightly unusual, so infrastructures can be a way of strengthening different types of cooperation,” says Joakim Palme.

European collaboration

European Research Infrastructure Consortium, Eric, is an overarching infrastructure for what European collaboration. Sweden is a part of several of its subdivisions.  One of these subdivisions is Clarin, a European language database with a digital newspaper archive, digitalised literature and sound files of spoken languages.

“For instance, the past hundred years of the Trade and Shipping newspaper have been digitalised which allows those who are studying language development to search and analyse”. Another subdivision that Sweden is a part of is Share, which is a database for research regarding health, ageing and pensions, and a third one is the European Social Survey, ESS. ESS conducts surveys in different countries to understand how individuals view their living conditions.

“The unique fact is that people in many different countries have been asked the same question and therefore researchers can produce analyses based on both the macro perspective and on the individual level. This is something that Joakim Palme has benefited greatly from in his research on welfare politics.

“Analyses and results become much more precise. I can, for instance, limit my investigation to examine how the welfare state is working for only the elderly”.

Making the decision-makers understand

He argues that it is all about making European decision-makers understand how research works and for them to invest in ways to meet. At the top of his wish list, there is a comprehensive research database of longitudinal studies in Europe for the development of both individuals and society.

“Quite a lot of financial resources are invested in European research collaborations that are in the field of technology. Why do we not make a worthwhile investment in the humanities and social sciences regarding the major societal challenges? This would also provide a better basis for the life sciences.

A good example of a macro database is the conflict database at Uppsala University where armed conflicts between countries have been registered. Now, a new database on conflicts within countries is under construction.

“There is also a need to create national infrastructures to systematically measure how counties and municipalities organise healthcare. These could be used to analyse how different styles of organisation effect outcomes, such as health”, says Joakim Palme.

Making them easier to use

In Sweden we need to coordinate the work on the national longitudinal studies that we already have in order to improve access and avoid double work.

“The people who have created the infrastructures can use them, but for others it is difficult as the user interfaces are poorly developed. It is very costly to collect, and time consuming to use the databases. The Swedish Research Council now want to invest in producing tools that will make them easier to use.

In Sweden, we need web-based platforms that are easy to operate, and that can handle requests and coordinate researchers issues. Then the measuring stations that are spread out across the country could be put to better use.

“Currently, a study of rock carvings from the Bronze Age in West Sweden is being carried by Professor Kristiansen at Gothenburg University. The measurements and results are going to be made available via the internet to make it possible for individual researchers in Sweden and internationally to analyse large amounts of material. This is an exciting example.

Text: Hanna Nolin
Photo: Anders Norderman

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