At the start of the discussion at Maastricht University, Frank Huisman, one of the initiators of ‘Science in Transition’ quickly summarized what preceded: “First we made an inventory of our personal grievances but then we grew analytical. We figured that there is something wrong with the image of science. So we should inform the public what science can and cannot do.” Or, as Huisman and his colleagues put it in their position paper: “In a sense the general public needs to be re-educated.”
Huisman: “Our second issue was trust. There is still a big amount of trust in science as opposed to industry and politics, but it risks being eroded. Quality is a third issue: there is a huge tendency to measure quality in quantitative terms. The fourth point is democracy: we are living in a democratic knowledge society, but how is democratic control organized? And finally: communication. Is science communication really just PR on behalf of the organization or is it truly knowledge dissemination?”
Since managing ‘Science in Transition’ took an awful lot of time, Frank Huisman briefly considered bringing the debate under the umbrella of the Royal Academy, KNAW. “But being anarchistic as we are, we wanted nobody to get a hold on us, and we continued on our own. We are now working towards improving our position paper, so that it can be of use to Education Minister Bussemaker who will come up with a vision on science for the next six years.”
Maastricht University was just as anarchistic and moved the discussion away from research towards education. Some people argued that honours programmes should be shelved, as all students – not just the excellent few – have the right to receive excellent education and learn critical thinking.
A student remarked: “Some teachers really try to encourage discussion when people have different opinions, but others simply say ’this is not in my instruction’. How are we supposed to learn critical thinking?”
Professor Rein de Wilde (dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences) said: “Of course we should ask students about their opinions, but in the end we should simply offer academic critical training to all students. And if they don’t accept the offer? Then we are doing something wrong.”
Some staff remarked that the Maastricht approach of problem based learning (PBL) makes the teaching load much higher. “This puts pressure on the quality of teaching and on research and makes it more difficult to hire staff.”
We still love what we do
The question whether ‘science has gone wrong’ is lively discussed in Maastricht, the university newspaper Obvervant publishing weekly on the topic, and rector Luc Soete predicting that the comfortable era of the insiders is over.
While the Science in Transition-position paper gives the impression that the authors feel somewhat victimized (the process of science is not properly understood by others, scientists feel trapped in the ‘bean counting’), Maastricht’s professor David Bernstein (department of psychology and neuroscience) sees proof of the contrary: “Although the financial climate makes it more difficult, I see in general a self-motivated and driven group of people, working long hours. Many of us suffer under the imperative of efficiency, but still we love what we do.”
Egon Willighagen (post doc at the department of health, medicine and life sciences) on the other hand sees bright researchers leaving university. “They say, ‘I’m not going to stay in academia, because it’s hell’ and set up their own start-up.”
Lies Wesseling (department of literature and art) blamed the ‘Topsectorenbeleid’, the national innovation policy, for much of the wrongs and got broad support. “It’s about freedom of choice. What has happened to the freedom of scientists to choose their own topics of research? This freedom is encroached upon by the Topsectorenbeleid and that sort of thing.”
“If you apply for grant always paragraph valorization is about immediate impact, but there seldom is ‘immediate impact’. This microphone here was not built by Topsectorenbeleid!”, a colleague of the economics department added.
Should scientists be absolutely free to choose whatever they do? Professor Sandra Beurskens (school of public health and primary care) doubts this, she thinks there is a responsibility to society too. “What’s wrong in academia is the narrow focus on scientific publications. That’s why I left Maastricht University in the past. At the Hogeschool Zuyd I found much more of a collaborative feeling. But I see now that the UM has changed for the better.”
The current publication frenzy doesn’t reflect much freedom. Frank Huisman: “Just last week the Lancet published an article on the waste we are facing in biomedical research. Yearly $ 240 billion is spent on biomedical research, 85% of that money is wasted. Negative outcomes are never published so that this research is replicated endlessly.”
The question remains when the peer reviewers – the same people as those suffering from the publication pressure – take up the challenge and start changing the logic of the big journals.