In June 2011 a Hungarian physicist friend, staying with us in London, invited me to tag along to his meeting at UCL. The meeting, he explained, was about building a huge new IT project that could compete for EU ‘Flagship’ funding of €1billion over 10 years, funded equally between the European Commission and national sources. My friend said that he would be interested to have a social scientist’s perspective on what was proposed. When I got to the meeting I found that two distinguished UK social scientists were already involved.

What was proposed was set out by Dirk Helbing, the team leader. It went something like this: the world faces a range of stubborn problems including climate change, overpopulation, the spread of infectious disease, war and other forms of conflict. Politicians, advised by social scientists, had grappled unsuccessfully with these problems and failed. The time had come for the physicists and mathematicians to take over, solve these basic challenges, and accelerate human progress in desirable directions. Their ability to do this was a function of new capacities in modelling allied to the ‘data deluge’ that had become available through the explosive growth in social media. As a result quantitative social science was now held to have predictive capacity. Social science would be truly ‘big science’ at last.

I spent another day or two at the meeting, being involved in some detailed discussions of the ethics of using social media data for the purposes proposed. I also questioned the wider value of the exercise – its methodological strengths and normative assumptions – to no great effect at the meeting, but in greater depth with my friend when the sessions were over and we returned home. The detailed plan, it transpired, involved building a planetary environmental model, and a parallel agent based model for the earth’s population, then linking them. Some discussions as to the possibility and wisdom of this developed on the internet and I found an ally in a colleague in Manchester who thought like me that this was an exercise in epistemological hubris, naïve in intention, distorting of the investment priorities of the social sciences, unlikely to succeed but dangerous in any success it might achieve. In this last vein my favourite thought experiment about the project was: faced with the normative imperative of forestalling social conflict, and armed with the computer readouts suggesting that the DDR project was near fatal meltdown in the last few months of 1989, to whom precisely would the FuturICTs, had they been working then, given what information at the time? Perhaps keeping the Stasi up to date on the issues and troublemakers would have been seen as the way of minimising the risk of all that nasty social conflict, so disruptive of social order.

FuturICT, as it was known (pronounced “futurist”, as the lords of this pluperfect realm would no doubt be known) seemed only too likely to find friends in the European Commission, where technocratic solutions are favoured and democracy is sometimes seen as social “noise”, attenuating the European project. But the acceptance seemed to spread, not only amongst financially challenged central European scholars like my friend, but distinguished groups of researchers on complexity close to home who no doubt rationalised their support in terms of being able to control the beast more effectively from within, as well as of course positioning themselves to suck up the loot. There are, after all, few social science project managers who find themselves with the problem of how to spend over a quarter of a million euros each day. A UK research council found in favour of FuturICT – presumably happy to sacrifice other projects to these new gods – and a range of others crowded in behind them.

Fortunately it was not quite enough. The two winners, announced in February 2013, were more research on graphene, today’s fashionable scientific answer to everything, and work on brain modelling, which may for all I know appear equally hubristic to the specialists in that field. However, at a time of extreme pressure on national and European research budgets it was still found justifiable to concentrate research funding in this way. Some of this press towards bigger European research budgets, of which this is only the most extreme example, comes from the contradiction between DG Research and Innovation’s growing ambition to see itself shaping the productive future of Europe, and a staffing squeeze which leads to a diminishing ability to manage and draw lessons from its research portfolio.

Poor enough motive as this might be for the European Commission, the camp followers have even less excuse. It might be useful for them, and reassuring for us, to have their reflections now on what on earth they were thinking of, in terms of what contemporary social science can achieve, the ethics of use of the data it draws on, and the proper uses of its findings in free and democratic societies. Meanwhile there are most probably, and very sadly, no shortage of agencies in all sorts of countries, assessing the FuturICT tools and team. Watch for scientists disappearing from the public domain.