[NB: a concise Dutch version of this piece appeared in Trouw, on 12 May 2015]
Veni, vidi, vici. I came, I saw, I conquered. Julius Caesar’s famous tricolon captures a view, actively promoted by the Dutch Scientific Organization (NWO), of a stellar academic career. Veni, vidi, and vici are—strikingly, unbelievably almost—the titles of three successive competitions that a successful academic should win, the three stages defining his or her career as an accomplished scholar. It is the year 2015 AD, and in the Netherlands, the boasting of a ruthless, if eloquent, Roman general from the year 46 BC is used to articulate a bizarre conception of how people should go about satiating their intellectual thirst. It is a neoliberal shoehorning of science into the mold of yet another war, replete with winners, losers, and of course lots of victims. You don’t have to be a Classical philologist to appreciate the irony, but it helps.
Worse than the violent male overtones are the implications. Certainly NWO and other public funding agencies such as the European Research Council (ERC) try to fulfill their important mandate by encouraging high quality research. Yet their logic and procedures are often premised on a narrow understanding of science in general and academia specifically. Let us take two examples:
Veni, vidi, vici provide a one-size-fits-all approach to science funding, which assumes that research is conducted similarly across disciplines and fields. Yet mathematicians, historians, political scientists, psychologists, geologists and many others, are mostly trained to work independently, as nodal points in an often international network, not in large groups or labs. And they rarely require substantial resources: a sojourn in the field, a trip to an archive, a small sum to compile a database or conduct a survey. Many of us are pretty cheap dates, actually. But modest sums are rarely available to most scholars, especially now that research funds are overwhelmingly entrusted by the government to the NWO and not to universities and their research institutes.
Indeed, it is far more common today to apply for 500.000 euros to conduct a large-scale project, which numerous scientists do not crave, than to request a small grant of 25.000-50.000 euros, even though for many of our colleagues that is precisely the sum separating them from conducting and publishing excellent and innovative research. However, the pressure to apply for large grants, as a form of good citizenship in one’s faculty or department, a way to move up the academic ladder, or indeed get or keep a temporary job, is too high for most scholars. So they spend many months preparing grants they do not necessarily need, and most often do not get. And they do it often at the expense of actually conducting research. Meanwhile, the already large administrative structures devised to deal with these requests continue to grow, and more tax money meant for the promotion of original research is syphoned off to pay bureaucrats and construct their monumental buildings. Efficient use of funds this is not.
Second and even more importantly: inspired by their private-sector parallels, public funding agencies want to see results and see them fast. They accordingly require that applicants invest a substantial amount of time (often between 50-100% of their hours) on their research projects and rush to publish their results. Other than a lack of sensitivity to different intellectual metabolisms betrayed by such an approach, this also means that “winners” drastically reduce their presence and participation in the life of their departments and institutes, as administrators and especially as teachers. With regular sabbaticals, such absences are tolerable in the life of a department or faculty. Not so with research projects that “relieve” a scholar from his or her departmental duties for three or even five years in a row. Worse still, it creates an immediate domino effect: “winners” get replaced by less expensive labor, usually younger scholars without research time, dumping increasingly heavy teaching loads on them, in what will likely be a dead-end career path. These are the system’s “losers”.
With one stroke, key NWO and ERC funding schemes create and promote a two-tier system. With marginal differences in quality, some scholars can set off on a stellar research career without so much as setting foot in a classroom for years, while others lead an opposite professional life, from which they are eager to break away. Neither lives up to the ethos of a homo academicus, full member of an academic community, where the best and most significant form of valorizing research is done through teaching, and where the stimulus behind research questions often comes from the classroom. That special moment, when a student’s comment strikes us with the full force of its implications, awaking us from a dogmatic slumber or simply illuminating our ignorance, is so often the beginning of a new exploration.
Our solution is to revise the mandate of public funding agencies, beginning with NWO. Let them by all means promote excellent science at the large-scale and collaborative and international levels, and provide scholars and disciplines whose modus operandi fits that pattern. But let us allow other scholars to define expertise and excellence in their fields and disciplines, without requiring them to appeal to a laughably vague national or European research agenda. This is better and more efficient use of our resources and tax money. In this sense faculties and departments can do a much more accurate and responsible job of both ensuring high quality research without undermining collegiality and a positive environment.
Last but not least, academia lives within and reflects the values of its own society. What does it say about us as a society if our higher education system valorizes the creation of winners and losers? For one thing, it tells us that there is something wrong with those who tried and failed. Blaming the victim rather than empowering the weak is the opposite of what a wealthy, progressive welfare state is about. Neither academia nor society at large should endorse a view of education as a form of competition instead of a civic right. By anointing winners and labeling losers, at any level, we fall prey to a destructive social worldview.