Research has a strong impact on human society and life. It should therefore be at the heart of democratic debate and decisions. But research policies are embodied in general policies, which today are oriented towards constantly expanded free trade and major corporations with disproportionate powers. One consequence of these general policies is the intensification of economic clashes inside the European Union and between it and other regions and countries of the world. Hence, there is an increasing subordination of human activities to the imperative to strengthen and defend the EU and its members at the economic level. Public research is being called upon, and is increasingly diverted to this goal. A continuum is being consolidated between a large part of fundamental research and applications or innovations involving the market. Thus fundamental research is in part channelled away from its objectives, shutting out aspects and fields of study with the result that issues of society and of human needs are insufficiently or hardly taken into account even when they are glaringly urgent. The massive use of competitive tenders favours, it is true, some scientific cooperation within Europe but also contributes to a general intensification of competition as well as the subordination of research to financial interests. Projects are under pressure from lobbies and are massively aimed at supporting economic competitiveness. The emphasis laid on societal challenges in recent invitations to tender, particularly in the Horizon 2020 programme, only provides a very inadequate attempt to take these challenges into account.
The support for fundamental research through European Research Council (ERC) scholarships, which encourages excellence, in fact promotes an exacerbated competition between researchers.
An ever growing collusion is occurring between political power and corporate power, especially that of the multi-nationals, leading to the latter’s domination of politics and society as a whole. As a result, democracy is weakened and bypassed at the EU, national, and local levels. The public research sector has not been spared, and its subordination assumes different aspects depending on the location, but it is articulated around four axes:
The state has always exercised authority over public research, not only because of its military objectives, but because the power exercised today by the major firms and the political forces has taken on an unprecedented form and breadth.
Asymmetries within Europe
The financial crisis and the option for austerity on a European scale have been accompanied by increased asymmetry within the EU and a collapse of the public funding of research in countries like Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Spanish public research institutions lost 42 per cent of their federal funding from 2009 to 2014; ninety per cent of staff retirements has been followed by the abolition of the jobs involved, accentuating the brain drain towards countries less affected by the crisis and austerity. The sectors not oriented towards economic production have been particularly hard hit. In Spain, the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) decided to break its contract with Valencia University and the Institute of the History of Science and Medicine, resulting in the latter’s demise.
In these countries, not even public research focused on innovation for corporations is spared. This is part of the economic re-composition favouring certain countries, particularly Germany. The budget of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research has increased by over 26 per cent in the period 2011-2013: ‘The objective is to pursue the mobilisation of all the actors in German research, public and private, around strategic issues to encourage the improved innovation of products and the maintenance of German competitiveness at a world level.’2
The condemnation of this policy by trade unionists and the scientific community
For the World Federation of Scientific Workers (WFSW), ‘the whole world faces a twofold challenge: to redefine the relations between human beings and our planet, and relations among human beings’.3 According to the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) ‘Problems and emergencies arise at international level, such as the rapid degradation of the environment of humanity or the growing world crisis of hunger. More generally, our societies are facing more and more complex problems. Research and education have a vital contribution, to conceive and implement solutions.’4
The ETUCE thus points to the major issue that research represents for humanity and underlines the sharp contradiction between this issue and the policies of the EU and its member states. These policies have become an obstacle to any research:
Repercussions on the work of researchers and on research itself
Concretely, public research is increasingly reduced to supplying innovations and services to corporations, which takes the form of:
Research personnel are increasingly subject to the dictates of political and economic authority. In an increasing number of cases the meaning of public research and skills has been diluted. Scientific workers are increasingly led to actively subordinate themselves and their research to narrow and restrictive objectives.
Scientific rigour, the search for truth, and the development of knowledge, as well as its usefulness for society, which account for much of the prestige and attractiveness of research, are today under attack. They are being replaced by the rush to be published, by the motivation to find the needed funding by answering invitations to tender, where each researcher or team candidate strives to play his or her cards right at the expense of others, thus adapting themselves to the criteria of the tenders and the evaluation agencies. Finally, many researchers are increasingly disconnected from the goals of their work, victims, in a sense, of the historic phenomena of enclosure and proletarianisation. In the process, their ideology and even their values are altered.
In the context of the neoliberal economic onslaught, knowledge is the object of privatisation, which clashes with the principles of cooperation and the maximum diffusion of knowledge. The present organisation of research into less polluting energy sources, for example, is largely subjected to this orientation, which impedes the cooperative development of this research work and the achievement of its medium and long term objectives, thus braking the transition to renewables and the struggle against climate change.
There is a similar tendency in the area of healthcare. The poorer countries are the first victims. Nevertheless, some emerging countries have at times succeeded in resisting the pressures and legal attacks from multinational firms holding patents, especially for medicines against HIV and AIDS.
A left policy for research must be based on principles such as gender equality, equality between regions, which is aided by research, and on scientific freedom, diversity, cooperation, and respect for the different time frames proper to particular kinds of research.
There is an urgent need to defend and redevelop scientific freedoms and academic democracy. This requires liberating the university around four axes: the location of power, funding, evaluation, and the status of the personnel. However, this – the priorities and the distribution of financial and human means – cannot be the sole basis of decisions concerning research policies. The political choices must be based on the democratic processes of discussion and decision-making. Researchers must be widely involved in these processes, knowledge and scientific theories being the domain of those who develop them.
Discussions and democratic decision-making must also precede the use or non-use of the results of research and determine their development. Researchers and those who work for the corporations must also be involved.
The use of genetically modified plants for direct field research or of nanotechnologies have given rise to whistle blowers and associations, which are trying to compensate (by sometimes questionable means) for the absence of democratic decision-making. In some countries, debates have taken place on these questions. However, far from being democratic, these have been duels between the pro and contra sides in a pseudo-debate aiming at making the populations accept what had been decided elsewhere.
Finally, if research policy ought to be an object of democracy, it must also serve democracy and not be used against it to control the population. From the local to the EU level, theoretical research must assist a new development of democracy, drawing lessons from history and the human and social sciences, and enriching itself with new tools of communication and collaboration.
The current ‘autonomy of the universities’ is a financial and managerial autonomy in the framework of economic competition. It is actually a form of subordination. Instead of this, the autonomy of the universities and research organisations ought to be part of a broader approach of making societies autonomous, which would be based on democracy and the application of the principle of subsidiarity.
In order to help provide answers to today’s and tomorrow’s societal issues and human needs a public plan of research based on European and international cooperation must be established. This requires financial and human resources adequate to the emergency and the seriousness of the global crisis. The plan must address the technological advances and the indispensable transformations of the economic and social system. It must also be based on an analysis of processes that weaken and endanger democracy as well as the conceptualisation and dissemination of ways of reconquering democracy.
Research requires the observance of methods and rhythms appropriate to its different fields. It is essential to preserve the difference between fundamental research and applied research in terms of their logic, objectives, and means, while preserving and developing the fertile interrelationships that they have built. It is also essential to preserve a diversity of discipline, which does not mean remaining ossified in a status quo, without evolving; rather, it means striving for enrichment. Finally, ideological and methodological plurality must be defended and encouraged. The wealth and the development of knowledge are based on the diversity and cross-fertilisation of disciplines, schools of thought, and approaches.
In terms of diversity, research in the humanities and social sciences require particular attention because of the political issues they involve.
The scientific freedom of researchers and research collectives, within the limits of ethical constraints, must be scrupulously protected and restored where it has been weakened or impeded. These freedoms are indispensable to technological innovation, in particular to future innovation, which is often unpredictable. They are indispensable to research’s contribution to democratic life and to a better understanding of the problems with which human societies are confronted.
Transparency is a precondition of the freedom of researchers and research teams, a condition of democracy and ethical responsibility. It must be applied to the process of defining research policies, to the management of research (funding, recruitment, careers, etc.), to the course of research activity, and to its results and their practical application. The mass surveillance carried out in secret by the NSA and revealed by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden is a reminder of the importance of this principle.
Basing ourselves on the evolution of research and inter-disciplinarity
A left project for research in Europe must break with the present and with the past, while taking account of the evolution of science without sweeping it all away.
Science has evolved by compartmentalising itself. The disciplines that emerged and were separated out in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have continued to subdivide themselves due to the accumulation of knowledge and the dominance of the analytical outlook. In the majority of disciplines a reductionist attitude favoured analysis and static description. But almost none of the questions raised by an emancipatory approach and by the challenges to which humanity must respond can be addressed within a single branch of science – the example of climate is far from being the only one. They require collaboration between existing disciplines (whose development must be respected and preserved), and a contextualisation that runs contrary to the common practices in most disciplines. They require the taking into account of complexity, and, finally, a completely novel development of action-research and participatory research.
A consequence of the fragmentation of disciplines and the neoliberal management of research is the very weak perception on the part of most researchers of the influences exerted by context (social, cultural, ethical, and natural environments, sponsors, theoretical presuppositions, etc.) on the choices, objects, methods, and output of research – and, conversely, the multiple influences of research output on society.
The strategies of contextualised research do not determine and study the object of their research by isolating and reducing it as much as possible but by envisaging it, and the methods used, in all the complexity of their contexts.
These are strategies that make explicit the interaction between cognitive and social values, contrary to the current myth of research governed purely by cognitive values. The purpose of these strategies is not to replace reductionist strategies but to complement them. Contextualised strategies often lead scientists, alone or with other social actors, to identify research questions that interact with social issues and to immerse these issues in a multi-disciplinary context that can be more or less broad. Thus they open new horizons, which is satisfying from the researchers’ point of view on condition that the scientific criteria of their disciplines are guaranteed. The difficulty, however, is the learning of inter-disciplinarity and the possible need to fully involve actors in the research, who are not trained scientists. The necessarily plural character of the approaches is in no way a relativist one in which anything goes. All roads do not necessarily lead to Rome, even though many in fact do.5
Over the last quarter of a century, a certain number of converging but not unified concepts have gradually appeared, which are covered by the term ‘complex’ (or ‘complexity’) in several scientific disciplines – at first in the ‘exact sciences’, then in the humanities and social sciences. The subjects of research are not isolated objects, dissected and reduced to the extreme as in the classical analytical approach, but systems whose evolution is due to interactions between the various components of the system. These interactions are multiple, non-linear (that is, without proportionality or an additive relation between causes and effects), and circular (involving retroactions). This new viewpoint has enabled the discovery of unexpected behaviour in systems, behaviour especially characterised by a sometimes extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, and thus a certain unpredictability, and by the existence of organisational levels whose properties emerge from the constituent parts, thus depending on them without simply amounting to them.
The study of these systems, or of complexity, now often uses mathematical models or computer simulations. It generates a way of thinking that radically breaks with established forms of thought (analytic, simplistic, reductionist, and static) though it encompasses them, and thus it is close to dialectical materialism, from which it could benefit and which it could enrich.
The development of sciences of the complex comes up against many obstacles, particularly at the level of official invitations to tender, which brake it, limiting it to some rare sub-disciplines, or sidestep it by confusing the complex with the complicated. To the extent that complexity corresponds to an approach of studying each object or process in its relation to its environment and as a function of the interactions with this environment, which in turn determines its future, this form of thought, more apt to grasp the world and society in all its complexity, should become the basis of rationality and irrigate all thinking, including political thinking. It is a scientific tool, indispensable to most contextualised approaches – and also to approaches for effective social emancipation.
Unconnected to any objective of practical application, completely free research must again become a priority. To achieve this, we must not only give back control to scientists; a plural policy of free research must also be promoted in a voluntarist manner to encourage even the most minority trends to express themselves and work, to encourage newness (which is very different from neoliberal innovation), and back small emerging teams. This research only can work in the long term; it may (or may not) ultimately lead to technical or civilisational progress.
At the same time, some branches of research must be in sync with society. There is an aspect of research that must be oriented to the economy, a form of research whose objective is to contribute to meeting humanity’s major challenges, and one that is oriented to emancipation.
The economic recasting of the EU
The EU must initiate a policy of recasting the economic model (production, exchange, transport, and consumption) that reduces its dependence upon international markets. This requires new agreements on international trade and the interruption of all the current negotiations aimed at intensifying free trade and the power of multinational firms. A major contribution from the world of research is needed. In this way, the EU would reduce the intensity of economic conflict and, correlatively, the pressure of the ‘knowledge economy’ on public research.
Research will require the establishment of democratic organs involving scientists, representatives of firms (researchers and other workers), and citizen representatives. This mechanism will go hand in hand with the development of economic democracy within companies and of political democracy on the local, national, and European territorial levels. The answers provided for each of these issues could take a variety of forms that would depend in particular on the country.
The emancipatory transformation of society and the response to the great societal challenges depend on the development of action-research, necessarily participatory and multi-disciplinary. It will involve conceiving, experimenting, analysing, and supporting actions and approaches to social innovation, changes in individual and collective behaviour, the appropriation of techniques and technologies, and the development of democratic life. Action-research also means theorising such actions and approaches and supporting their appropriation by society while working for social progress and for innovative developments.
Diachrony and participatory research
One of the difficulties of a solid and responsible research policy is combining the different time frames of research and society. Public research institutions often deal with questions that necessitate a long-term approach, while social issues often call for short-term responses. To this extent, one cannot envisage defining a research policy solely in terms of problems advanced by the organs of society – it is essential to take into account the time frames and specific logic of research.
It is vital to find ways of linking and synchronising scientific activity and society. Models like the science shops in Europe and community-based research in the United States are attempts at developing such synchronism. Other models are proliferating and make it possible to take into account diversity, priorities, time frames, and interventions. What is important is to note that the relations between scientific work and society are potentially fertile nexuses for scientific development, in particular participatory research in which people who do not have the status of researchers take part in the development of a research activity or in the definition of its objectives.
Plurality of knowledge, democracy, and expertise
Scientific knowledge is diverse. Moreover, some forms of knowledge – narrative, technical, and traditional as well as many others – that are indispensable for a knowledge of reality are not of a scientific nature. The most complete knowledge is based on the combination of a variety of forms of learning. Finally, especially in complex areas, uncertainty and the unforeseeable are important factors and need to be taken into account.
Today we are seeing the substitution of democratic discussion by reports and debate between experts, most often enclosed in a narrow technical field – dehumanised and erasing all complexity, nearly always imprisoned in the framework of neoliberal capitalist dogmas while making much of their claims to having access to the truth. Often these reports suffer from major methodological biases, and even manipulations and deceit. The citizens are nevertheless asked to line up behind their conclusions, even though they generally lack the indispensable keys needed to question their validity. As for forms of knowledge that are not based on technical or scientific expertise but essential to wide knowledge and democratic debate, they are too often not called upon. The heritage of Marxist and anarchist thinkers, and the whole spectrum of radical thought movements, are simply brushed aside.
This narrowing tendency is a tool of the current system of control and domination of people.
The idea of expertise must be explored and rethought. Methodological and ethical rules must be established and observed. Firstly, the formulation of the questions must be the subject of a plural debate involving the different parties concerned. Secondly, the political authorities and the media must not decide the choice of experts on whom they call for advice – or at least not decide it alone. Finally, a plurality of forms of knowledge but also of the rigour and quality of expert reports is indispensable. A major principle of expertise in the service of democracy is pluralism. Pluralism of disciplines first and foremost, since on most societal issues the discussions and democratic decisions cannot be nurtured by a single scientific discipline but rather by the crossing of many of them. Then ideological and methodological pluralism since within any one discipline different schools of thought and a diversity of approaches co-exist. Finally, citizen pluralism since expertise is enriched by questioning, comments, and non-scientific knowledge.
A knowledge commons
Privatisation has extended even to the fundamental sciences. More or less indispensable scientific journals, which have to be paid for by their readers or their authors, have considerably raised their prices over the last decade. On both sides of the Atlantic, however, some universities have launched a counter offensive, calling on their research workers to boycott these journals and publish their works with free public access (a boycott that has a limited effect because of the bibliometric evaluation based on these journals). In another area we observe the phenomenon of free software. These movements should be developed to the point of creating free platforms accessible to the public, archiving the results of research work in all areas and backing this with a free system of validation and recognition by peers. This should be part of a new model of research, science, and technology raised to the level of common goods of humanity, whose access should be a fundamental and universal right. The effectiveness of this right requires the refoundation of scientific culture and a deep transformation of education and information systems.
What is the role of the EU?
The EU´s research policy must adhere to the principle of subsidiarity and be chiefly aimed at resolving the major challenges facing humanity and Europe. It must encourage fundamental research, its logic, and its ends, in all member countries. It must ensure the application of some principles and pursue certain objectives: international openness and international cooperation; mobility for researchers, freely decided by them; equality and solidarity between European regions and countries; gender equality; academic freedom; democracy in research and in society; improvement of social and work conditions; healthcare; sustainable development; peace; future-oriented studies and critical social analyses, etc.
The institutions and modalities for implementing EU research policy
Certain major research projects, in particular in the fields of particle physics, energy, and space, require international cooperation. The appropriate dimension for such projects is the EU. We must draw lessons from the major European organisations like the EONR (European Organisation for Nuclear Research), the ESA (European Space Agency), and the ESO (European Southern Observatory). This cooperation has resulted in some first-rate discoveries: Higgs Boson (EONR), the evolution of the universe with the Planck satellite, and the rendezvousing with a comet and reduction of its velocity by the space probe Rosetta (ESA). These successes are due to the fact that these areas have largely been freed from economic competition since their costs and time frames (several decades) are such that they are not subject to the criteria of economic profitability, even though their economic benefits can be major, as in the web developed by the EONR. These European research institutions are, above all, based on democracy and cooperation. They enable exchanges and synergies by taking into account the strengths of each country.
Faced with neoliberal global capitalism, it is imperative to develop research on the foundations and models of society, based on the heritage of radical thinkers, Marxists, anarchists, etc., and on the works of anthropologists and historians, but also on democratic and emancipatory experiments, the renewal and multiplication of which is our hope and aim.
To give back to research its full potential breadth, to put it at the service of human rather than financial profitability, a change of conceptual framework is indispensable – the whole economic and social fabric depends on it. The same goes for the development of countries and human beings. Research workers, despite a policy that tends to demotivate them, are deeply attached to their vocation. It is difficult for them to live with the pressures to which they are subjected, the general competitive pressure, and the brakes on their freedom to do research. They have an important role to play in defining and carrying out a policy for the refoundation of research.