Freedom does not come for free

Nieuws | de redactie
1 september 2015 | The Dutch discussion around ‘rendementsdenken’ as was fueled by the Maagdenhuis-occupation, inspired philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek at the University of Amsterdam to reflect up academic freedom and the role of valorisation of science. “Academic freedom implies societal engagement.”

At the opening of the academic year in Amsterdam, that was delayed after protesting students blocked the entrance, Peter-Paul Verbeek elaborated on the role of universities in society and what academic freedom should mean. You can read his speech here.


“Ladies and gentlemen, 

Almost a century ago, in 1923, German philosopher Karl Jaspers published his work ‘Die Idee der Universität”. In this book, he investigated the role that universities can play in society. In the existential tradition that he was part of, the central concept that he used was: freedom. Universities are places where freedom can flourish. The academic quest for truth, after all, can only exist when freedom exists. At the same time, this freedom does not come for free. It plays itself out in society. Science is part of society. And therefore, social engagement is part of science.

This analysis of freedom and the university is still remarkably inspiring when looking at the current discussion about the university, and it’s relation to innovation, as I was asked to speak about. Let me illustrate this by describing two recent events that urged our country to rethink the relation between university and society.

The first event is the introduction of the so-called ‘top sector policy’. A few years ago, the Dutch government decided that it wanted to tackle the “innovation paradox”: we have top science in our country but innovation lags behind. The situation was seen as a “pipeline from science to skill to business”. And this pipeline needed to be flushed. Therefore, a large part of the NWO budget was reallocated to facilitate cooperation between universities and companies. Industry policy disguised as science policy – in a country where companies refuse to invest in research. With many adversary effects. Not only because there is less money available for basic research but also because the new system requires co-funding by companies, which is not always available. When I tried to apply for a responsible research and innovation grant for a project on the ethics of deep brain stimulation I could not apply because the company I worked with was a startup, living on investor money, and not being able to contribute financially.

The second event is, of course, the protests at this university, and the hard work done to ‘rethink UvA’. A movement with which I really sympathize, and which finally gave a voice to a deep feeling of discomfort that many people have. But, to be honest, it also made me a bit worried.

Indeed: efficiency is not a goal in itself, and the neoliberal approach of universities, faculties, and departments as business units has started to suffocate the functioning of academia in a terrible way. But we should not forget that the current system also came about as an answer to a problematic situation – a system in which scarce resources for research were not distributed in terms of efficiency did not get the best out of universities either… When research resources are not dynamic, the resources do not always end up at the most productive and innovative places.

The central problem seems to be that attempts to stimulate quality have developed into a neo-liberal system in which only what generates money has a right to exist, and in which quality is equaled to earning capacity. At the same time we would not want to return to a system in which research time is self-evident and scientists can claim money without even bothering about the outcomes and social implications of their work.

Now how does Karl Jaspers help us here to think about the university of the future? For Jaspers, science is “the attestation of freedom via truth”. In truth, freedom shows itself: the freedom to ask questions, to investigate, to start anew. Truth, at the same time, has a specific relation to usefulness, or valorization, as we would call it now. Science is useful for society, only because its usefulness is grounded in something more fundamental, according to Jaspers: a striving for truth, for Wahrheit. This quest for freedom through truth will never arrive at its final destination. The only question that matters, for Jaspers, is whether or not this route towards freedom is open or blocked. We have to keep inventing what freedom means.

A route to freedom that should not be blocked – this is quite a different metaphor than the pipeline from science to innovation that needs to be flushed… What we need for valorization – or “useful science” – according to Jaspers, is to keep open the route to freedom.

So how to understand this “route to freedom” then, in the relation between university and society? The central question here is what “freedom” means. In the existential tradition that Jaspers helped to found, “freedom” had a radically different meaning than the neoliberal freedom to be the entrepreneur of your own life, or of your own research, in a university context. Freedom is a relation, not the absence of something: a relation to oneself, and from that relation also to the world in which we are living. It is the obligation to make something out of one’s existence.

This existential concept of freedom, however old it may be, can actually still be helpful in the current discussion. Top sector policy has urged many of us to defend academic freedom: the freedom to do independent research, without interference of companies. But, ironically, this has also narrowed our understanding of what academic freedom is. Freedom now seems to mean: just leave us alone. Like Vincent Icke, who urges policy-makers to do away with the word ‘valorization’. “TomTom would not have been possible without the theory of relativity – but who could have anticipated that?” Just give us the money, and we will eventually come up with something interesting – that seems to be the idea.

Of course, as any good academic should know, this is not a valid form of argumentation. We cannot fund all types of research, so we will inevitably need to select. And how do we select as a society? In terms of quality of research! And part of that can be societal relevance. Efficiency thinking, therefore, cannot be thrown away without throwing out the child with the bath water. It is its extreme version – neoliberalism – that needs to be countered.

Isaiah Berlin distinguished two forms of freedom: negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom is freedom-from: the absence of obstacles. “No valorization!” Positive freedom is freedom-to. It is positive engagement. And then the central questions are: What are we free for? What do we need academic freedom for?

This brings me to my third and last point: the social role of the university. I think that, if there is one thing we need to rethink as a consequence of rethinking academic freedom, it is our concepts of innovation and valorization.

In our neoliberal times, innovation has come to mean ‘economic development’, and valorization has come to mean ‘making money’. But rather than rejecting these notions altogether, I think we need to expand our understanding of them.

Innovation belongs to the heart of science. It is in fact a consequence of freedom: the radical preparedness to start anew. New ideas, new discoveries, new designs. But its goal is not just economical, but cultural and social in a broader sense. Science contributes to society. And it takes the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities to deal with this in a responsible way.

And this is exactly what the value of science can be – not a valorization in the economical sense, but in a broader societal sense. Economic valorization can be part of that, but it can never be the starting point. And if it is part of it, then it will always take place in the wider context of the relations between Science and Society.

The university of the 21century does not place itself outside the realm of innovation and valorization, but rather see them as forms of engagement – one among many others – that come with academic freedom.

Let me conclude, therefore, with 5 propositions, of which I think they are essential to any future science policy:

  1. Academic freedom is the most central academic value.
  2. Academic freedom implies societal engagement.
  3. The neoliberal reduction of freedom to economic liberty cannot do justice to the depth of academic freedom and the manifold relations between science and society.
  4. Innovation is a consequence of freedom, not its condition: it is the radical preparedness to start anew, to re-think, and economic innovation is part of that, not its ultimate goal.
  5. The university of the 21st century needs to be directed at keeping open the “path to freedom”, by engaging in the ongoing process of creating ever new conditions in which academic freedom can flourish in ever new historical conditions. 

Thank you.”

Peter-Paul Verbeek is philosopher at Twente Technical University and the former president of De Jonge Akademie

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