A difficult relationship


The Cover Page of the research magazine Horizons. © SNSF

Science is always political. But this does not necessarily mean that scientists should enter politics, even if the boundary between the two fields once was porous. There are many issues involved in what is a difficult relationship. By Urs Hafner

(From "Horizons" no. 104, March 2015)

Can it be true? That there’s a female professor in parliament who’s engaged in a vehement campaign against the popular initiative ‘Swiss law before foreign laws’ that was launched by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP)? You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of researchers who’re active in politics. And there are hardly any more researchers who’ve taken an active political stance in public. Politics and science don’t seem to go together in a liberal democracy.

That wasn’t the case back in the 19th century, when the Old Swiss Confederacy was crumbling. When our modern scientific system was still in its early stages, scholars were often politicians and vice versa. For example, the co-founder of the Swiss Academy of Sciences – which is now two hundred years old – was the fearless Zurich democrat Paul Usteri. He was a botanist, a medical doctor and chief editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, in the pages of which he campaigned tirelessly for press freedom. He had a seat in the Zurich parliament as a member of the liberal party and died in 1831 shortly after his election as Mayor. In the new Academy of Sciences, he campaigned both for scientific progress and for the emergent Swiss state. The same was true of Frédéric-César de La Harpe from the canton of Vaud: a geographer, historian and anti-aristocrat who represented Switzerland at the Vienna Congress two hundred years ago. Scholarship and politics seemed to belong together back then.

Would it be desirable for today’s scholars to take Usteri and de La Harpe as their example? To nail their political colours to the mast and run for office so that their scientific knowledge could flow directly into politics? Or so that this knowledge might profit from a more practical perspective? Probably not. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, the great sociologist Max Weber realised that scholarship and politics are two quite different things in a parliamentary system. And this is still true today. Politicians fight with all possible means so as to attain power and realise their beliefs; researchers on the other hand dedicate themselves to knowledge and to analysing things in the most unbiased manner possible. They are committed to truth. Whatever ideology they might ascribe to should be secondary. If their private opinions play a role in their work – which is often unavoidable and sometimes even stimulating – then they should at least endeavour to sublimate those views, or account for them when determining their results.

But although scholarship and politics are two different systems with different currencies (truth on the one hand, specific values on the other), in our ‘knowledge society’ today, they are more closely interlocked than ever. And since its emergence, the state has had obligations to scholarship. Without the work of patriotic historians, the emergent nation would not have developed a unifying mythology; without the knowledge of the hydrologists and geologists active in the scientific academies, no maps would have been drawn up – and these are not just a matter of gratification to hikers, but also offer the populace the means of acquiring a spatial idea of their country.

Osmotic exchange

Being at the service of the state is a balancing act for scholars and scientists. They are supported by the state and could not flourish without it; but they have to be careful to maintain their autonomy, even in a post-national age. Today, scholars and scientists are required to provide useful knowledge – knowledge that is measured by numbers of publications, patents and prizes. The current opinion is that society is dependent on the practical knowledge of scientists. Researchers as ‘experts’ deliver information that becomes the basis of political decisions; they comment on all possible events and carry out opinion polls. But scholarship is a genuinely critical activity. Its initial task is not to provide solutions, but to question existing routines. For this reason it is fundamentally impractical. Scholarship constructs complexity, it does not reduce it. Whoever expects it to provide easy-to-apply solutions will be disappointed, though this is precisely what applied and application-oriented research promises. But in fact – as the sociologist Peter Schallberger from the FHS St. Gallen, University of Applied Sciences, explains – research that can be applied so straightforwardly is not research at all. It’s merely a service provision.

Research is always political – even when it’s unaware of it. It is engaged in a con-stant process of osmotic exchange with the world that exists outside its ivory tower. One example of this is the ‘race research’ in Zurich that established itself as an internationally leading school of biological anthropology in the first half of the 20th century. It is discussed by the historian Pascal Germann in a new book entitled Die Naturforschenden (‘The natural scientists’), to be published in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Academy of Sciences. The main protagonists of this Zurich School were Rudolf Martin, who was appointed to the first chair in anthropology in Switzerland in 1899, and his successor Otto Schlaginhaufen. They both regarded themselves as natural scientists who wanted to use exact scientific methods to construct a scientific classification for the human species. Their anthropological textbook, the Lehrbuch der Anthropologie, with its technical guidelines for anatomical measurements, was last published in a revised edition as late as 1992.

The trap of political ideologies

The plan of these anthropologists was simple, though difficult to implement. They had to measure lots of people in order to complete their body of knowledge about different ‘races’ – the existence of such differences seemed to them to be incontrovertible. But they were not just interested in the circumference of the skull or the length of the legs; no, they also wanted to know the colour of the anus and of the mucous membranes of the genitalia. They were convinced that this was the only way to determine unequivocally the colour of human skin. Naturally, no one participated willingly in these meticulous investi-gations. But as long as the anthropologists were able to conduct their research in areas colonised by Europeans, they had enough different human beings to analyse. After decolonisation, the scientists had to make do increasingly with Swiss Army recruits.

They were convinced that they were acting as real scientists do, pursuing nothing but the whole truth. They were unaware – or wanted to remain so – that the notion of a ‘racial theory’ is in itself racist, and that by constructing their theory of different races they were also assigning them different values and violating their human
integrity. The Zurich School defined itself as an unpolitical institution. This fact, coupled with their being located in what was seen as a neutral country, enabled them to cooperate both with German anthropologists working in the service of the Nazis, and with scientific opponents of ‘Aryan’ racism. The reputation of the School remained unblemished.

The scholarly autonomy defined by Max Weber is always precarious. It is threatened by politics and by big business, which both want to harness it to their own ends. This autonomy has to be protected. But if scholars and scientists believe that their autonomy consists of working completely beyond the influence of the political sphere, and if they don’t take the time to reflect on their relationships outside the scientific field, then they risk blundering into the trap of political ideologies. The existence of different ‘races’ was one such trap; another lay in determining the difference between the sexes in the 19th century – for that difference was medically and conclusively ‘proven’ to be situated in both the uterus and the brain.

Attacks from right-wing populists

Professors shouldn’t be repeating any political slogans in the lecture hall, but they should demonstrate to their students that scientific work always possesses political relevance. Of this, the historian Caroline Arni of the University of Basel is convinced. Scholarship and science should be defending their autonomy but at the same time be concerned about the political dimensions of their work, while refraining from jumping into the political arena. They are supported in this primarily by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, which see themselves as think-tanks and interest groups that deal with the structurally difficult relationship between scholarship and society. This is not just about creating good working conditions for scholars and scientists or about offering expertise to politicians. It’s also about protecting the sciences and humanities from the impositions of politics and the attacks of their opponents.

Perhaps our scholarly and scientific institutions should start doing this more vigorously in future, if the political pressure on them gets any stronger. ‘Unpopular’ intellectuals are already subjected to politically motivated attacks by the tabloid media and right-wing populists. If the institutions of those attacked don’t defend them in the media, then they are letting their own credibility be called into question.

Urs Hafner is a historian and a science journalist.

Politics and natural scientists

The paths of science, politics and business have long been closely intertwined. This is well illustrated in the book Die Naturforschenden by the historians Patrick Kupper and Bernhard C. Schär. This is a pioneering work because the history of the natural sciences in Switzerland has rarely been investigated. Over fifteen chapters, this book casts a new light on the history of the natural sciences in Switzerland since the year 1800. They show that the Swiss Society for Natural Sciences – today known as the Academy of Sciences – was from the moment it was founded in 1815 not just involved in science, but also in politics. It was the time of the restoration in Europe, and reactionary forces had the upper hand. In the Society for Natural Sciences, the many different factions of the patriotic movement were able to regroup.

The Society for Natural Sciences soon began to create different commissions that could also answer questions in the political arena. One early example is the creation of a commission in 1822 to “investigate and compare Swiss weights and measures”, which led to the unification of our system of weights and measures. These commissions provided a scientific basis for the development of state infrastructure. Thus geological maps were important for the federal railway and road construction projects, while meteorological and hydrological research improved weather forecasting. The commissions were often also the predecessors of different offices of the federal administration that were gradually set up after the creation of the federal state – such as Swisstopo and Meteo Schweiz. The Commission for Nature Conservation paved the way for organised nature protection in Switzerland. It founded the Swiss National Park, and in order to finance the Park it also created the Swiss Nature Protection League, known today as Pro Natura.

The book Die Naturforschenden will be published in May 2015. It was initiated by the Swiss Academy of Sciences and is part of its activities in commemoration of its 200th anniversary. mf


Communication division
E-mail com@snf.ch