Unease in the universities

04/Jun/2014

This picture shows students protesting in front of the EPFL. © Keystone/Laurent Gillieron

The Swiss electorate has accepted the initiative launched by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) against ‘mass immigration’. But it strikes at the heart of research as it violates the principle of universalism that underpins our whole system of science and scholarship. By Urs Hafner

In the lead up to the referendum of 9 February 2014, the scientific world was guarded in its opinions about the SVP’s popular initiative against ‘mass immigration’, which the Swiss electorate eventually accepted. Later on, and after the European Union reacted by excluding Switzerland from its large-scale research programmes, there was dismay and indignation everywhere at the supposed inaction of politicians and the cluelessness of the electorate, and at how they have seemingly gambled with the very future of Switzerland as a centre of research. Research policy makers believe we are threatened because good scholarship and research is dependent on international networks and cooperation. It’s worth noting that ‘networking’ and ‘international’ are buzz-words that the globalised academic scene likes to apply to itself. And scientists jetting from one conference to the next – so busy networking that they hardly have time for proper research any more – are all insistent on how important ‘international networking’ is for their work.

"The internationalisation of scholarship is perceived as something excellent in and of itself, independent of what it actually achieves", says Marcel Weber, a philosopher of science at the University of Geneva. Getting as big an international profile as possible is a self-confirming, self-flattering means for a scholar to acquire power and money in his or her field. To be sure, he says, international prestige is not just a means of satisfying one’s vanity. Recognition by one’s peers also plays an important role in the self-monitoring of scholarship. Prestige is like a currency that leads to the "optimal allocation of resources". It is therefore part and parcel of scientific reason.

But Bettina Heintz, a sociologist of science at the University of Lucerne, says she cannot simply agree with those who insist that international networking is indispensable to scientific research. "This claim masks the working differences between the natural sciences and the humanities". Researchers in experimental physics and molecular biology, for example – two highly specialised disciplines – need such complex equipment for their work that they are compelled to collaborate in an international ‘division of labour’.

The humanities, on the other hand, are not so dependent on collaborations. For a historian or a linguist, it is important and enriching to have personal contact with colleagues who work abroad, but in the end they often write their work on their own. They have to have access to texts written by their colleagues, but they are not necessarily dependent on being able to work with them in any kind of research association.

A cosmopolitan republic of scholars

What Heintz doesn’t want, however, is for such observations on the differences between the disciplines to be interpreted as a rejection of cross-border contact between academics. On the contrary, she insists there must be opportunity to enter into contact with each and every other fellow in the world in order to utilise the global potential of all knowledge and experience fully. It is this ‘norm of universalism’, formulated by the US sociologist Robert K. Merton, that is the very foundation of our system of science and scholarship.

Science possesses a dynamic that crosses geographical borders, as has been observed since its very beginnings in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance when the first universities were founded. Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus and others studied and taught at universities and monastery schools in Bologna, Padua, Paris and Cologne, explains Michael Hagner, a science historian at ETH Zurich. The first modern research university in Europe – the University of Göttingen, founded in the early 18th century – also had an international outlook, he says. Science and scholarship were never before, and never again, as cosmopolitan as they were during the Enlightenment with its ‘Republic of Letters’. Throughout Europe, academics corresponded with each other in the two languages of science, Latin and French.

"Locally limited intelligence"

Conversely, we can observe how scientific systems stagnate and decline when isolated from their environment. Hagner mentions an example from the 17th century at the University of Tübingen, where professorships were passed down among local dignitaries. The result was a trend promoting ‘locally limited’ intelligence. From the 20th century, Hagner offers the examples of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, both cases that have been thoroughly researched. Under these totalitarian dictatorships, the only productive disciplines were those that stabilised the respective system, primarily the technological/military disciplines. In Germany, for example, bacteriology was denounced as a ‘Jewish science’ and so fell behind. And even after the end of National Socialism, the history of science in Germany "limped along for decades", says Hagner, until it opened up to the Anglo-American world in the 1980s.

According to Hagner, even those cases of isolation that at first glance seem to have been intellectually fertile merely serve to confirm the premise that scholarship is dependent on intellectual exchange. The philosopher Hans Blumenberg became immensely prolific after his retirement, when he shut himself off from the world. But he would not have succeeded in this, had he not, as a young scholar, gathered experience of life beyond the bounds of closed knowledge systems. The same applies to Marcel Proust, who wrote his legendary À la recherche du temps perdu only in the second half of his life. Marcel Weber stresses that even men such as Immanuel Kant and Gregor Mendel, who are generally regarded as ‘lonely geniuses’, maintained an intensive contact with other scholars, without whom they would hardly have been capable of having their groundbreaking insights.

The referendum of 9 February will not sever all the connections that link academics in Switzerland to their colleagues abroad. But the universities that have raised large sums in Brussels in recent years will now lose millions of francs, and the damage done by the popular decision threatens to become far greater still. With the rigid ‘contingency principle’ envisaged by the SVP initiative, Switzerland is to extend the ‘protection of the Swiss species’, as Heintz calls it, in its universities to include EU researchers. With quotas already existing for non-EU citizens, nationality now has ultimate primacy before quality.

But the contingency principle does not just infringe upon the norm of universalism. It also affects the integrity of the foreign scientists and scholars who are being ostracised. Even those who have lived in Switzerland for years have been feeling ill at ease since 9 February 2014. ‘I would be a liar if I were to deny it’, says Hagner.


(From "Horizons" No .101, June 2014)


 

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