Science and the research profession in a crisis-ridden global world

Frederico G. Carvalho

(Intervenção no Simpósio da Federação Mundial dos Trabalhadores Científicos, Paris, Fevereiro 2009)

 

 

Abstract

The present paper deals with the inevitability of chaos originating in the blind pursuit of the goals of the profit driven so-called “free market economy”. The adequacy of the formal democracy championed by the major western powers to cope with the problems facing mankind and achieve a materially sustainable and socially acceptable future is questioned.The need is stressed for a strong public sector to extend and develop education for all as well as to invest in R&D oriented towards the common good in an environment that promotes the attractiveness of scientific careers.

 

Introduction

 For a number of years public opinion especially in the so-called industrialized nations has regularly been confronted with the idea of the importance and necessity of developing human resources in science and technology and increasing expenditure in R&D.

Without further investigation of the how and why of that importance and necessity it is probably safe to consider that the idea is capable of generating a broad consensus in society. Things will look different as soon as one begins to enquire about the ways, means and ends of the scientific endeavour present and future.

From the point of view of the transnational corporations and their supporting financial capital superstructure, the main argument for investing in S&T is the need to “remain competitive in global terms”. Competitiveness however is a religion that demands human sacrifices.

Scientific workers are an indispensable tool to achieve the goal of “remaining competitive”. In fact, “without researchers there is no science in Europe”, says with remarkable insight Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research adding that “(…) wherever they work, (researchers should be) treated with the respect and esteem they deserve.”[1] Are they indeed?

Competitiveness and economic growth (growth without any qualification) stand as top policy priorities again and again emphasized in official statements issued by the many different bodies that propagate the views of the dominant ruling circles.

Quoting former Commissioner Philippe Busquin[2], “Europe needs more research if it is to consolidate economic recovery and enhance long-term competitiveness”.

 

The scientific workforce

 Let us have a look at the scientific workforce in Europe.

Presently in the European Union at 27, the number of researchers [3] approaches 1.3 million in FTE or approximately 1.8 million in head count.

The European Commission has considered this number insufficient to attain the objectives set by the March 2002 Barcelona European Council, (quote) “to increase the average research investment level from 1.9% of GDP today to 3% of GDP by 2010, of which 2/3 should be funded by the private sector.”[4]. Accordingly an “action plan” was drafted that estimates a raising demand for researchers at about 1.2 million additional research personnel, including 700 000 additional researchers, “deemed necessary to attain the objective, on top of the expected replacement of the ageing workforce in research.”[5]

Noteworthy is the fact that the “action plan” is described as “a complement” of other initiatives “aimed at boosting the Union’s competitiveness” in response to the March 2000 Lisbon European Council policy objective to “make Europe the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010”. That is, next year.

When speaking about competitiveness one may naturally be led to consider the question of competing with what or with whom. Part of the answer may be found in the routine comparisons made in Commission papers with the USA, Japan, and more recently, with China. In fact with his ever-present clarity of mind Commissioner Potočnik informs us in the most recent booklet “Key Figures 2007. Towards a European Research Area, Science, Technology and Innovation” [6] that (quote): “Globalisation is a reality and knowledge is more evenly distributed than ever before.”

Question: is this good or is this bad? Apparently the whole business of remaining competitive is becoming trickier as the concept of competitiveness gradually looses substance.

In this respect the above referred to booklet does not bring good news for the champions of the “European dream” or the Lisbon Strategy. According to the cited document (Key Figures 2007) (quote) “The EU is at a crossroads. (…) in spite of recent optimistic prospects for EU economic growth in 2007 and 2008, there is evidence that the EU suffers from a structural growth handicap.”

“One of the most visible features of the new, multipolar world is the internationalisation of R&D beyond the traditional borders of the Triad.” (We quote again)

In the document cited it is pointed out that “this more global focus for R&D spending can be seen in the increasing diversification of the outward R&D investment of the US (…)”, with US firms “targeting all major regions of the world, and especially Asia.” There is thus less and less coincidence between where research is carried out, and who finances the work and appropriates its product.

The so-called “newly emerging economies” are repeatedly referred to in terms that raise the doubt of whether such emergence is welcome or seen as a threat.

In the “Key Figures 2007document one can read that “China is about to overtake the EU in terms of world share in exports of high-tech products. Since 2003, China has become the world’s main exporter of computers. Regarding electronics and telecom, China has been ahead of the EU since 2004 and will probably overtake the US in 2007.”[7]

 As is well documented, a growing fraction of the graduate students and young scientists’ workforce in the USA is formed by foreigners. The number of doctorates awarded to non-US citizens in the 5-year period ending in 2007 has grown by more than 40%. In 2007, in S&E fields about 14 thousand doctorates have been awarded to non-US citizens while the corresponding number for US citizens was 16 thousand.[8]

 The above referred “action plan” of the European Commission, explicitly mentions the “international competition to attract highly qualified workers” and the importance of retaining in Europe a “sufficient number” of world-class researchers using an appropriate combination of means, including issues concerning immigration-related policies. This can be interpreted as being simultaneously in opposition and in favour of the draining of qualified brains depending on the direction of the flow.

 

Heading for Disaster

In fact “Europe is at a crossroads”. However, it is clear that this assessment, at source, is primarily linked to the questions of “competitiveness” and “economic growth”. This can be denounced not only as a parochial point of view but as a shortsighted one as well. Instead it would be appropriate to say that the world itself is at a crossroads and that the route towards a sustainable future and a socially acceptable quality of life requires substituting co-operation for competition at the global level.

We are witnessing the bust phase of a giant financial bubble and its ongoing repercussions on the world economy with tragic consequences for the everyday life of millions of people. But in reality (quote Jeffrey Sachs who writes in Scientific American”) “our risks go far beyond finance. Our reckless gambles on the (…) financial bubble are dwarfed by the long-term gambles we have taken trough failure to address the interconnected crises of water, energy, poverty, food and climate change.”[9]

In the present state of the world the question on the table is not to overcome these crises — something that cannot be achieved in less than one generation — but to start moving in the right direction to create the conditions for survival — hopefully respecting the principles laid down on the Declaration of Human Rights.

To attain this goal deep structural changes are required on the way society is organized. Changes so deep that may well be deemed revolutionary. There is a growing social conscience of the evidence that the blind pursuit of the goals of the profit driven so-called “free market economy” in fact inseparable from the relentless exploitation of Earth’s existing human and physical resources is responsible for growing inequalities and the present social and economic crises. Persevering along the same track is bound to lead to chaos, violence and war.

Time is getting short to change course all the more so considering that a number of stumbling blocks stand on the road to a viable future. It is fair to say that we don’t need competition but co-operation and that globally in the present circumstances we don’t need growth but a phase of degrowth for a period long enough to reach a stationary state as far as the availability of natural resources is concerned. The question is whether it is possible to “achieve such a degrowth without social and political disasters.”[10]

Science has a decisive role to play in this context but there are a few prerequisites to be met. Broadly speaking science and scientific workers are held hostage by the powerful economic interests that control governments and restrain the capacity of autonomous decision of nation-states.

It is appropriate to quote here the Declaration of the French Association Science, Technology, Society, of December 11, 2008, that claims that “research policy concerns all citizens. Science and Technology are society’s concern.” And it goes on to say that “the purpose of research is not primarily that assigned to it by the European Treaties, namely to provide the basis of economic competitiveness” (end of quote). In our perspective, scientific research while answering a fundamental aspiration of human nature, shall and does interact with applied and industrial research on a two way process of interchange that is necessary and beneficial to both.

 

Building up a Science basis to meet the challenges that stand before mankind

To meet the enormous challenges that stand before us “a robust academic environment” and “a clear and consistent long term government policy” are required.[11] It is improbable not to say impossible that a science policy effectively concerned with the common good of society can be designed and implemented in the absence of a strong public sector: a public sector capable of intervening in strategic areas of social life besides the one facet of scientific and technological endeavour.

One should realize however that a strong public sector is hardly compatible with the campaign of systematic denigration of the concept of “career” and “work for life” jobs led by governments that favour liberal policies and constantly echoed by the media. In fact such a campaign is conducted in order to weaken citizen’s opposition to an on-going process of pauperisation of public services in favour of private enterprise.

The actual policies practiced by most governments around the world do not conform with the present and future challenges faced by human societies. Often they do not conform even with their own discourse about those challenges. Although one finds widely different situations in different regions of the globe and in different states, broadly speaking, the need is present everywhere to substantially increase investment in the educational system, in scientific and technological infrastructures at the national level as well as in jointly funded and managed international scientific and technological organizations in key areas.

Furthermore, once we agree that “Science and Technology are society’s concern” and that “research policy concerns all citizens” it is consequent to emphasize the importance of fostering the scientific culture of the masses as a decisive tool to shape the future. This goes naturally hand in hand with the universal expansion of school systems, education for all and effective improvement of mass literacy with particular emphasis on the teaching of science and the assimilation of the scientific method.

It is indispensable to increase the absolute number and improve the qualification of human resources in R&D activities. This requires creating an environment that promotes the attractiveness of scientific careers and the recognition of the research profession as such, implying employment stability, career development opportunities and social rights in the framework of an adequate labour legislation. The possibility of carrying out free fundamental research in every field of knowledge must be guaranteed combating the present tendency to make it more and more difficult to meet the necessary requisites both material and immaterial for a fruitful work— such as time and moral incentives. It is opportune to note that salaries are one of the material requisites we have in mind. Comparing the value of salaries is not always straightforward especially when one is dealing with different systems or parts of the world where conditions are quite different.

Purchase Power Standards currently used as conversion factors have their limitations mainly where free public sector services play an important role. Right to the point I quote from an editorial published in the January 8 edition of “Nature” entitled “Cuba’s biotech boom” the following passage:

 “Ask a Cuban scientist why he or she works long hours to earn little more than the US$20-per-month average wage, and the answer is often that they want to make sick people better, with the kudos[12] of having done so. The venture-capital model’s promise of riches is nice, it seems, but not essential” (end of quote).

 Besides free fundamental research we need targeted research in its several forms —fundamental, oriented and applied research — as well as experimental development required for innovation. Targets of R&D work should be set according to society needs which are not necessarily coincident with corporate needs. One recent example is that of the announced suppression by Pfizer — the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company —of 800 research positions (about 5 to 8 per cent of the firms R&D workforce) in a move “to rationalize the company’s portfolio towards those areas that will have the greatest value and return”[13]. A different matter would be to rationalize the engagement of the existing specialized R&D workforce in the pharmaceutical industry towards the best interests of public health.

 

Questioning society’s superstructure

In the debate about which road to follow out of the crossroads the question of the form of government is surfacing here and there in published opinion. More precisely, the question is raised of the adequacy of the democratic system as instituted, practiced and championed by the major western powers, to the planning and implementation of the necessary coherent long-term policies able to cope with the problems facing mankind.

In a recent issue of the European Union’s research magazine “Research*eu” dedicated to the subject of “Energy. Extracting ourselves from oil” one can read that “(…) perhaps, by their very nature, our democracies take too short-term a view to grasp such long-term introduction of coherent measures.”[14] We shall not discuss whether the system qualifies as democratic or what requisites are necessary for a system to qualify as such.

David Strahan, consultant for the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre (ODAC), cited in the same issue of “Research*eu” considers that “From the macroeconomic standpoint, I do not think that peak oil is beneficial for the democratic system. In fact the democratic system is a poor framework for the changes needed to counter the effects of this crisis, which explains the failure of all policies on the matter. A whole array of scenarios can therefore be envisaged, from greater local-community activism to the emergence of a form of authoritarianism within central government. One could even imagine a combination of the two”[15]  (end of quote).

 

The future is open. It is up to us to collectively shape it.



[1] “What is a researcher? European Commission defines roles and responsibilities”, Mr. Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research in the presentation of the European Charter for Researchers, March 2005

[2] “Towards a European Research Area - Science, Technology and Innovation - Key Figures 2003-2004”, Preface, European Commission, Directorate-General for Research, EUR 20735 EN (2003)

[3] Researchers (research scientists and engineers, RSEs) include the occupational groups ISCO-2 (Professional Occupations) and ISCO-1237 (Research and Development Department Managers). See the “Frascati Manual” (OECD 1993)

[4]“Investing in research: an action plan for Europe”, Communication from the Commission, COM(2003)22final/2, Brussels, 4.6.2003

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Key Figures 2007”, EUR 22572 EN, European Commission, Directorate-General for Research, ISBN 92-79-03450-2, © European Communities, 2007. URL: http://ec.europa.eu/invest-in-research/monitoring/statistical01_en.htm.

[7] ibid

[8] InfoBriefSRS,Science Resources Statistics NSF 09-307, Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, National Science Foundation, November 2008

[9] in “Blackouts and Cascading Failures”, Jeffrey D. Sachs, Scientific American, January 2009, 300 (1), p.20 (www.SciAm.com/jan2009)

[10] Cf. Nature 457,147;8 January 2009, in “Correspondence”, Hervé Philippe, Département de Biochimie, Université de Montréal

[11] Carrie Pottinger, Energy Technology Coordinator, IEA Energy Technology Collaboration Division, cited in the article “Tomorrow is another Day”, Research-eu, the Magazine of the European Research Area. Special issue, April 2008, pp.41-42

[12] Kudos: the praise and honour one receives for an achievement (Oxford, Advanced Learners Dictionary)

[13] Pfizer Sheds More Staff, George Koroneos, Online Content & News Editor, PharmExec Direct, Jan 14, 2009 (http://pharmexec.findpharma.com/pharmexec/News/Pfizer-Sheds-More-Staff/ArticleStandard/Article/detail/575379?ref=25)”

[14] “Tomorrow is another day”, J.P. Geets, J. Van Rossom, Research*eu, Special issue, April 2008, pp-41-42

[15] Ibid.