Debate: Science in Transition
MAASTRICHT. The mensa at the Tongersestraat was overflowing last Tuesday evening for the debate on Science in Transition (SiT). Those expecting fireworks came away disappointed. There were no emotional exchanges, no confrontational altercations; the evening was civilised and at times even a bit dull. The discussion steered clear of typical SiT topics, such as rankings, perverse incentives in scientific publishing and the notion of the PhD ‘factory’. Instead, it focused on the workload, the plight of young researchers, the capacity – or otherwise – of students to think critically, and who really sets the research agenda.
Should all students be taught critical thinking? The first part of the evening revolved around this question, after professor emeritus Joan Muysken (School of Business and Economics, SBE) suggested two tracks in the study programmes: one professional and one academic. “We should realise that some students want more professional training and some students are more interested in academia.” Professor of Philosophy Tsjalling Swierstra, chair of the debate organised by the Executive Board, Observant and Studium Generale, threw the floor to Rein de Wilde, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS). He disagreed: “Students should be offered both professional and academic training. They all want to learn some form of critical thinking. We should be able to teach them that and, if we can’t, we should re-teach ourselves.” David Townend, professor of Law and Legal Philosophy at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML), felt education should follow from research. “We can offer students insight into what we do and have them examine it in a critical way.”
The students in the audience are divided on the question. “You must be a critical thinker to perform well professionally”, one says. Others doubt that everyone would be interested. Restrict it to the honours programmes, they say; those are the motivated students. One questions whether critical thinking can be learned at all. “Yes, that’s exactly our purpose in education”, says SBE dean Philip Vergauwen. “Critical thinking is not a matter of giving your opinion. It’s about asking ‘can I fully understand and can I go further; does this make me understand the world better?’ Understanding is about analysis and you can learn that.”
“We can’t discuss critical thinking without addressing the real facts we have to deal with as scholars”, says philosopher René Gabriëls, who is associated with the Platform for the Reform of Dutch Universities. These include bureaucracy and streamlining of universities, as well as the teaching load. Although peripheral to the major themes in SiT, the latter is something widely acknowledged in the course of the evening. “We know our teaching load is much higher than elsewhere because of the PBL”, says Arno Riedl, professor of Public Economics. “We teach at least one third more than in Germany. Our system makes it more difficult to hire people. People prefer less teaching pressure.” Another FASoS lecturer talks of “doing voluntary work; you get fewer hours than you spend. This affects the quality of education and research.”
“I won’t deny that our colleagues are very busy,” says David Bernstein, professor of Forensic Psychotherapy, “but many have chosen an academic life because they have the passion. I see in general a self-motivated and driven group of people, working very long hours.” And they love what they do, he concludes.
But it is widely agreed that the junior staff are in a difficult position, with uncertain prospects. FHML-Postdoc Egon Willighagen: “I see bright researchers leaving the university saying, ‘I’m not going to stay in academia; it’s hell’.” The university’s rector, Luc Soete, acknowledges: “Young researchers have a tough time; something today’s senior staff never had to face.” He suggests that the older generation give up some space and salary for the benefit of their younger peers. “That’s something we have to talk about. In the eighties, the average age at which someone was appointed professor at this university was 38; now it’s 48.”
Freedom of choice
Interference by way of the government’s ‘top sectors policy’ – nine areas in which the Netherlands aims to excel – meets with criticism. “Nobody knows what society will need in ten years, including the government”, says Wim Buurman, professor emeritus from the FHML. “The best way to serve society”, argues Lies Wesseling, director of the Centre of Gender and Diversity, “is to give scientists the freedom to choose their own topics.” The keyword is independence, according to professor of European Union Law Ellen Vos. “That’s what makes a university special. We must preserve it when we partner up with companies.”
So do societal relevance and freedom hinder one another? asks Swierstra. “When researchers apply for a grant, they need to fill in the ‘valorisation’ section, describing the societal impact of their study”, says Riedl. “What this refers to is ‘immediate impact’. Science will always have an impact, but not always in the short term.” He worries about the growing emphasis on applied research. “Pasteur once said: applied science doesn’t exist. There is science and there are applications.”
But the SiT initiators want to go further, De Wilde points out. “In their view, society as a whole, the public, should decide on the research themes.” One of these initiators, Frank Huisman, responds: “Indeed, that’s difficult to put into practice. The average Joe can’t decide between black holes and malaria. Still, we feel it’s important to open up the debate on participatory knowledge production.” Ingrid Wijk, head of the university library, chimes in: “There are not only the 16 million people in the Netherlands. What we’re talking about is a global issue. In 2011, 19,000 Dutch researchers produced 47,000 international publications.”
Still, it’s important to address the topic, says Huisman: “Last week, The Lancet started a series on waste, publishing a study by John Ioannidis and colleagues. In 2010, no less than 240 billion dollars was spent on biomedical research worldwide. 85 percent of this amount was wasted, for example through not publishing negative results. 240 billion every year! We should give this issue serious thought.”
Wendy Degens, Cleo Freriks, Maurice Timmermans