'Unique' EU research project to help detect social problems
By Philip Ebels
A new pan-European research project is aiming to connect the archives of Europe’s many libraries, universities and other public institutions in the hope of gaining a better understanding of how society is evolving.
"Researchers will be able to access all those different archives from behind a single computer," says Steven Krauwer, linguistics researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and coordinator of the Common Language Resources and Technology Infrastructure - or Clarin.
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Thanks to advanced language recognition technology, they will be able to carry out complicated searches and include things like emotional indicators. “Not only will you be able to search for newspaper articles on migration, for example, but also just for articles that talk about migration in a negative way,” says Krauwer.
There are thousands of archives scattered across the continent, but not all are easily accessible. Clarin, it is said, will allow researchers to browse the bulk of Europe’s collective, digitally stored language material - text, video and audio - all in one go.
The inevitable problem of there being many different languages is “something we want to do something about,” says Krauwer, pointing at recent advances in automatic translation software.
The purpose of the new service will be to carry out comparative, cross-border research on how European societies are evolving. The results could be useful to historians and political scientists, but also to journalists and politicians.
“I think that changes in our social climate, caused by migration, an ageing population, or the growing divide between rich an poor, can easily be detected,” says Krauwer, “especially through the media.” He likes to talk of a "social climate change".
“It would be naive to think that thanks to this method you would be able to prevent the next social tsunami, but perhaps it can help you to see it coming and take precautions.”
The fifth EU freedom?
The Clarin project is “very unique”, says Krauwer, not only because of its large scale and international scope, but also because of its special EU legal status - the second of its kind and by far the biggest.
Clarin in late February was established as a European Research Infrastructure Consortium, a supranational body created in 2009 by EU member states to allow for large-scale research projects - larger than is feasible in any one member state and large enough to compete with projects elsewhere in the world.
Its legal status is not unlike that of an international organisation: It is exempt from value added tax and other mundane obligations; its members are countries and other international organisations. It receives no EU subsidies - it is the members themselves who pay contribution.
The creation of such a separate EU personality is part of a lasting attempt to create what policy-makers call a European Research Area, “where researchers, knowledge and technology can circulate freely”. In more poetic moments, they talk of a “fifth freedom” - one to complement the traditional four freedoms of the EU’s internal market (goods, capital, services and people).
Yet while growing, the amount of cross-border, intra-EU research remains small. According to the bloc’s own figures, in 2008 (the latest figures available), only 4.5 percent of national R&D budgets was allocated to trans-national research. Only 7 percent of European doctoral candidates studied in another member state.
For now, Clarin counts among its members Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and the Dutch Language Union. Croatia, Finland, France and Norway are expected to join at any moment. Spain and Greece have postponed their membership, says Klauwers, for reasons of austerity.
In five years time, when the service is expected slowly to become operational, Clarin’s membership number should have doubled. In the end, says Krauwers, “the aim is to welcome among our midst all EU members states and associated members.”