DEBATE: The danger of research giving way
Developing the Covid-19 vaccines that now protect us, was an endeavour embarked upon well before society went into its first lockdown. This highlights the importance of basic long-term research, but we see that such research is under threat.
RAPID TEST: Rector Svein Stølen and pro-rector Åse Gornitzka in Frederikkeplassen at Blindern. Behind them there is a queue of people who want to get a rapid test for detection of Covid-19. (Photo from the archive)
A blogg on our way to 2022 EUA Annual Conference - University values: what, why and how?
One month after people started becoming ill with Covid-19, the 30,000 nucleotide genome of the virus had been identified, sorted, and digitally mapped. A new type of vaccine, based on mRNA molecules and technologies, was rapidly developed - a pivotal defence against Covid-19. New mutant viruses have been met with LEGO-like "plug and play" approaches.
“Without decades of long-term basic research, this would not have been possible.”
The quote is by Dr. Stanley Plotkin, from TIME Magazine's article 2021 Heroes of the year: The miracle workers. It tells the story of the many struggles and efforts of researchers who have worked tirelessly with mRNA as a basis for vaccines for many decades. It is a tale of progress and setbacks, of rejections of applications for funding, and of breakthroughs. The article identifies the intensity, impatience and dedication that characterise many of the best researchers and research communities: "A sense of urgency". This is but one of many examples illustrating the importance of long-term basic research. Out of such research comes the knowledge we need when a crisis we have not anticipated suddenly hits us.
Faced with the pandemic, research-based knowledge has formed an important part of our preparedness and mitigation. Science will prove just as vital when the next crisis strikes. Therefore, society must invest in research, not the least in research that may seem less relevant in contemporary society. Neither politicians nor research leaders / bureaucrats can predict what knowledge we will come to need in the longer run. We were "lucky" with the virus. We already knew a lot about it. We could have been struck by something completely new to us. The pandemic has also clearly demonstrated that we need cross-disciplinary knowledge, beyond the realms of biology and medicine, if we are to handle such a crisis and recuperate from it in the best possible way.
We are deeply concerned by the threats to long-term basic research. These threats do not arise because decision-makers do not understand the usefulness of such research. Rather they emerge from the meeting between many different and individually deserving political goals and objectives. We are afraid that research has been hit by an expectation to give way to other considerations. The political concept of duty to give way is taken from Mari Teigen and Hege Skjeie´s work within the field of gender equality (1), but the phenomenon is equally relevant to a development in research policy whose contours are now becoming clearer. Making priorities for basic research is put in second, third or fourth place.
Giving way to what is “useful” has to do with the equilibrium of thematic research, missions, and long-term basic research that is assessed based on quality. National and international research councils must find the right balance between research and innovation policy – for balance is required. So is an understanding of the intrinsic value of basic research. As J.G. March (2018: 227) points out: “Research is not an investment; it's a testament» (2). We are afraid of a gradual weakening of the funding of free research through budget cuts and a redistribution of funds between different parts of the research ecosystem – in Norway and in Horizon Europe. Sector ministries provide funding that is thematically tied to those who are going to distribute it. This is understandable, but it should also serve as a warning sign that there are not as many ties ensuring the funding share of basic research. We call for a more solid and lasting commitment to the financing of basic research.
Giving way to security policy has to do with the global nature of research. We will of course maintain responsibility for assessing security risks associated with our research projects. Security and foreign policy cannot set the main premises for who one cooperates with, in which countries, and in which fields. Otherwise, there will be significant unintended ramifications for academic freedom and the development of knowledge. European research universities need to agree on a set of principles for international cooperation in research.
Security policy cannot override international cooperation outside of NATO and Europe vital to meeting the sustainability agenda. Our local societal challenges are often global, while the global ones hit every nook and cranny of the world faster than we like. Last year the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme. Its Executive Director, David Beasley, was unequivocally clear when speaking both in the University Aula for the ceremony itself and at Oslo City Hall afterwards: Conflicts, climate, and Covid-19 constitute a "perfect storm" that is sending millions of people into crisis marked by hunger and death. In a few years, Africa will have the world's largest and youngest population. At the same time, the climate crisis could create massive migration. We must be able to interact with both non-democratic and less politically stable nations. If not for the sake of being humane and compassionate, then for purely selfish reasons, Beasley concluded.
Giving way to personnel policy has to do with the pressure to make universities a workplace just like any other. Yes, the level of temporary employment is too high, and there is an unhealthy competition within certain disciplines. We ought to take a lesson from the institute sector. At the same time, a personnel policy that weakens the principle of qualifications, and the option of using permanent research positions, will also weaken our competitiveness and our research. Competition is an integral part of academia.
Giving way to the regional and national has to do with the danger that national needs and apparent national issues and perspectives are set too strongly against the international. It is also about the danger of regionalization of both calls and awards. Awards must be based on quality. At the University of Oslo, we train doctors, lawyers, associate professors, psychologists, pharmacists, social economists, computer scientists, historians, special educators and more with expertise at an international top level. Doing so requires research-based education and strong research communities that position themselves at the research front and that are in continuous dialogue with the global knowledge community. International orientation, cooperation and recruitment outside a country's borders are important and part of what we are as a university – and a prerequisite for us to respond well to the many and different expectations that society holds of us. Giving the right of way to regional considerations within the sector of higher education and research, could in time be counterproductive and weaken the supply of sound professional competence at the regional level.
Giving way in the media has to do with the fostering of loud and polarized debates. The tendency to prefer academic participants who dare to provoke, should not prevail. The principle of factual argumentation must not be sidelined in order to fuel heated discussions and to produce clickbait. Is provocation more important than the actual knowledge underpinning the arguments? Should we primarily foster intellectuals who comment on society in this way, or is the dissemination of our own research – directed at the public, at decision-makers and civil administration, and at actors in the labour market – our main responsibility as researchers?
We cannot accept such a duty to give way. Making priorities for long-term basic research is in danger of colliding with many different and individually meritorious political goals and objectives. This will have long-term consequences for research and higher education, and for our society's ability to tackle an unknown future. It threatens both the “knowledge preparedness” that we are so completely dependent on (as shown by the Covid-19 pandemic) as well as our competitiveness in a global knowledge society. The forthcoming Norwegian long-term plan for research and higher education will be of importance when this challenge is to be met. The long-term plan must make it clear that basic research may not always have a duty to give way, and set frameworks that ensure that this understanding is followed up in research and higher education policy in the coming years.
(1) Skjeie, H., & Teigen, M. (2003). Menn imellom. Gyldendal.
(2) March, J. (2018). A Scholar's Quest. Management and Organization Review, 14(1), 225-228. doi:10.1017/mor.2018.3
(This article was first published in "Rektorbloggen" April 28th)