Austrian Participation in Research Infrastructures in the Social Sciences and Humanities

Bridges vol. 41, October 2014 / Feature

By Matthias Reiter-Pázmándy & Andreas Stockhammer

Recently, research infrastructures have been high on the agenda within the social sciences and humanities (SSH) in Europe. Austria is one of the most active countries in this field, and Austrian research institutions are participating in all five pan-European research infrastructures that were declared particularly important by the European Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), the body that advises the European Commission on this topic.

The importance of research infrastructures in the social sciences and humanities is a topic requiring additional attention. Research infrastructures in SSH are not big devices located in one spot like telescopes or laboratories; rather they are infrastructures geographically distributed across countries. One example is the Survey on Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe. This panel survey collects extensive data on aging and related issues across 20 European countries. The value of such a research infrastructure depends very much on the number of countries taking part in data collection, as well as its continuity over time. To efficiently measure quality of life, health, employment biographies, and retirement among the elderly in Europe, it is important to continually measure over several years or even decades. Every country that participates in such an infrastructure gains access to the data of all other participants, thus multiplying the investment within each individual country.

The social sciences and humanities currently have five research infrastructures on the strategic roadmap of ESFRI: SHARE (Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe), CESSDA (Council of European Social Science Data Archives), and the ESS (European Social Survey) within the social sciences. The humanities are represented in the research infrastructures CLARIN (Common Language Resources and Technology Infrastructure) and DARIAH (Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities).

SHARE – Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe 

The international research project SHARE was founded in 2002, and was the first consortium formally institutionalized under the legal entity of a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), a new legal entity designed specifically for research infrastructures in Europe. Currently, 20 European countries as well as Israel participate in the SHARE study. To ensure and expand the international comparability of the data, SHARE intensively cooperates with the US Health and Retirement Survey (HRS) and the English Longitudinal Survey of Aging (ELSA). Aging studies from Japan, Korea, and China are also part of the SHARE network.

SHARE is an international long-term panel study, aiming to examine quality of life, health, employment biography, and pensions of people more than 50 years old and to develop strategies to maintain and improve the high standards of pension, social, and health systems. In this field, SHARE is the most significant European database. 

With a multidisciplinary team consisting of more than 100 scientists from the fields of economics, sociology, psychology, medicine, and demography, SHARE develops a Europe-wide, representative panel database to analyze the development and individual aspects of aging. SHARE operates with a panel design, with one group of individuals being interviewed at intervals over a given period of time to create a longitudinal statistical study with causal connections. Currently, the panel consists of 85,000 persons over the age of 50.

CESSDA – Council of European Social Science Data Archives

CESSDA forms the umbrella organization of the European social science data archives and contains the respective national data of social science surveys. CESSDA's main responsibilities are to document and archive not only national but also European surveys, which are stored in one of the national CESSDA archives. CESSDA aims to base the documentation and archiving of survey data in Europe according to standardized and uniform guidelines.

CESSDA’s data have proven indispensable for understanding and analyzing European societies and their structural changes in the fields of labor markets, health, migration, social inequality, political attitude, participation, leisure habits, crime, consumption patterns, and many more areas. The respective European databases have already been archived systematically since the 1970s. CESSDA’s vision is to construct a large common European social science data archive, which should be directly accessible to social scientists all across Europe.

ESS – European Social Survey

The ESS is a representative social survey covering the European population from age 15 on up. Each survey round consists of a recurring core program as well as changing modules, aiming to efficiently capture and analyze new societal phenomena in Europe. Since 2002, the European Social Survey has been conducted every two years. Currently, around 30 European countries participate in each ESS survey round. Its topics have been, for instance: political participation, the degree of trust in institutions, use of media, security, quality of life, gender issues, migration, religion, values, health, justice, working conditions, aging, etc. The ESS has been continually praised for its extraordinarily high methodological quality (e.g., its survey design, pretesting, sampling, data collection, error reduction, and reliability of questions), and hence has become a worldwide benchmark in survey production.


Common Language Resources and Technology Infrastructure

Nowadays, mobile phones understand spoken language, cars talk to their drivers, and digital dictionaries correct misspelling and can even make their contents visible and make them audible. All these achievements have become possible through language technology tools, which have been developed in recent years. Language technology is based on digital language resources, i.e., language data, such as digital text collections or spoken language, dictionaries, glossaries, terminology databases, ontologies, thesauri, encyclopaedias, and tools that produce and process these data. The availability of digital language resources is of great importance not only for the sciences in Austria, but also has growing importance for the rapidly growing Austrian language industry.

CLARIN (with nine countries currently participating) aims to facilitate simple and permanently guaranteed access to digital language technologies and resources, and enables users to find, annotate, analyse, and combine language resources, independent of their physical storage location or format. In the framework of CLARIN, new language resources are being developed and consisting ones modified, integrated and enhanced, in order to merge resources and services into one domain. To develop such a unique language data archive, existing databases must become interoperable with new digital tools.

DARIAH Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities 

DARIAH addresses the broad community of humanities composed of different disciplines, such as history, archaeology, philosophy, theology, linguistics, literature, art, music, theatre, film, and media studies. The infrastructure aims to develop digital research and research methods in the respective disciplines. In order to address the disciplines’ different theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and needs, the DARIAH task forces (consisting of institutions from its 15 member states) work on two fronts. First of all, they provide generic services to be used by all scientists and research facilities; these services include contemporary repositories, which are designed to guarantee sustainable security for research data and hence the collective scientific memory. Secondly, they intensively work on developing specialized services for specific needs of particular areas, such as digital virtual research environments for variation linguists or digital editions for literary scholars. 

The new infrastructure enables broad participation in digital resources. Based on principles of open source and open access, digital tools and data are supposed to create shared knowledge and common methods, which should generate new synergies in order to produce new insights and better results.

Research Infrastructures as a means of scientific cooperation

Research infrastructures have proved to be important instruments for bringing together a wide range of different experts and knowledge in research. They are a key element of cooperation within the research community. Data collected by these research infrastructures are accessible to researchers from all over the world, which means that European research infrastructures have the potential to reach out beyond Europe and build a foundation for international R&D cooperation. The Survey on Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) is an example of a survey that has been harmonized with its US counterpart, the US Health and Retirement Survey (HRS) in order to produce comparable data. Other potential areas for cooperation in the context of research infrastructures in SSH need yet to be explored. Particularly promising are the research infrastructures in the field of Digital Humanities and language resources DARIAH and CLARIN.

A leading challenge for European research infrastructures is budgetary constraints that threaten the continuing participation of many countries. Nevertheless, it remains a top priority within Europe to facilitate further cooperation across research institutions and to expand the participation in the existing research infrastructures. The goal is to have the widest possible participation across Europe. Research infrastructures will play an important role in the future, bringing together even more researchers and scientists in a world that gets smaller every day.

Matthias Reiter-Pázmándy and Andreas Stockhammer are researchers in the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy.