Inequality beyond representation in European research funding

Inequality beyond representation in European research funding

Based on an analysis of EU funded research, Rachel Fishberg shows how inequalities continue to persist within the Global North research funding landscape and how attempts to create representative research projects can still reproduce research framed largely by the interests of elite countries and institutions.


When we think of the Global South, Europe rarely comes to mind. In a 2021 LSE Impact Blog post the Global South was described as a relational category, highlighting that in the context of global knowledge production the term predominantly pertains to Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Yet in Europe, a similar problem endures: Despite ongoing critiques of Eurocentric dominance in knowledge, social science produced within and about Europe still perpetuates established power imbalances and reinforces geographic disparities. Regions like Central and Eastern Europe, along with areas of Southern Europe, are often overlooked in discussions about knowledge inequality which tend to concentrate on the, at times, overly simplistic and monolithic label of the Global South.

Collaborative knowledge production efforts, such as those projects funded by the EU to tackle large-scale societal challenges, aim to bridge these divides and create knowledge representative of all Europe. But do they? Instead of levelling the playing field, might these initiatives reflect the very inequalities they aim to address?

Regions like Central and Eastern Europe, along with areas of Southern Europe, are often overlooked in discussions about knowledge inequality which tend to concentrate on the, at times, overly simplistic and monolithic label of the Global South

Much of the criticism regarding the funding of major research initiatives focuses on what I call ‘participatory optics’—who gets the funds and which scholars from which nations and institutions can participate. In the case of the EU, the European Commission’s actions seem to aim for equalised involvement and representation in EU-funded research. Ultimately, the normative ideal hinges on the principle that better participation, cooperation, and geographic distribution of funds leads to more useful and robust scientific knowledge production in and about Europe.

Yet, I would argue that the question isn’t only about who receives funding and who gets to participate. It’s about whether such collaborations truly lead to a geographically balanced and relevant understanding of Europe. Our recent research suggests they don’t.

In a recent co-authored article we highlight how geopolitical and historical disparities impact not only representation — meaning which countries and institutions get included in research — but they also shape the substance of the research — meaning the topics or cases that are chosen for study. This also includes the methods that researchers choose and how these choices play out in practice.

In the study, our analysis of EU collaborative social science projects shifted away from simply identifying the countries and institutions of participating researchers. Instead, we conducted an in-depth quantitative and qualitative evaluation of the specific areas where collaborative social science projects concentrated their research. The study analysed which countries are selected as case studies, the extent to which researchers had the opportunity to lead projects related to their own national contexts, and the ways in which these factors could influence the potential biases in the knowledge generated through these research collaborations.

This work produced two critical insights:

Unintentional ‘model country’ bias in knowledge creation is subtle yet significant

On the surface, it’s a straightforward concept: when large-scale social science initiatives, especially those spanning across the EU, strive to forge universally applicable insights, they inadvertently prioritise certain countries over others. This bias is not always intentional, yet it occurs consistently in practice.

EU collaborations, specifically designed to address societal challenges, have an important and implicit goal: to generate findings that resonate across borders. To achieve this, researchers often adopt uniform research designs and methodologies, which are applied across various national contexts to guarantee consistency and comparability. However, despite best intentions, these projects can default to methodological or theoretical frameworks that inadvertently reflect the characteristics of countries typically at the forefront of the EU’s academic landscape—often those in northern and western Europe.

Even when no explicit model country is named, the practical design of the study tends to align better with these central nations.

Even when no explicit model country is named, the practical design of the study tends to align better with these central nations. Our analysis reveals a pattern: projects frequently feature at least one country case from this favoured region, which could result in a methodological oversight for others. The outcome? A skewed production of knowledge that unintentionally side-lines the unique socio-political contexts of more peripheralized countries, such as those in Central and Eastern Europe and parts of Southern Europe

This dynamic not only works to marginalise certain EU regions, but also enforces a hierarchy of knowledge value. This brings me to a second key insight.

Representation from peripheral contexts without prioritisation is not enough

When we bring diverse national contexts into EU research, it’s seen as an important step towards fairer knowledge creation. However, it’s important to acknowledge that including more peripheral countries as case studies doesn’t guarantee that their unique knowledge will be given the attention it deserves.

Our research found that in largescale EU collaborations, when researchers do find specific knowledge about certain peripheralised country contexts, it can be overshadowed by insights from more central countries, which are usually considered more universally applicable for the EU deliverable. So, even though peripheral countries are involved in the research, insights from these contexts tend to be downplayed or mixed in with findings from more central countries. This can potentially make the research less inclusive and reduces the usefulness of its findings.

Another problem is that the rigid structure of grant agreements with the European Commission makes it hard to adapt research methods to fit diverse country contexts once the project has started. This shows us that the way we design large-scale EU research projects can unintentionally reinforce the importance of some countries over others and limit the diversity of knowledge we generate.

So, even though peripheral countries are involved in the research, insights from these contexts tend to be downplayed or mixed in with findings from more central countries

So, what now? Large-scale, multi-partner EU collaborations are not only an essential part of the funding landscape for the social sciences, but also a crucial source of knowledge about European societies. Given the substantial investment in these projects, it’s imperative to confront not just who is included in the conversation, but also how deeper geopolitical imbalances are mirrored in the very framework of these projects. Such self-reflection is key to ensure that our understanding of Europe, in all its layers and intricacies, is not skewed by underlying inequities.

 


This post draws on the author’s co-authored article, The ‘where’ of EU social science collaborations: How epistemic inequalities and geopolitical power asymmetries persist in research about Europe, by Rachel Fishberg, Anton Grau Larsen, and Kristoffer Kropp, published in Sociological Review.

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