Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On Being an Academic

What differentiates academics from other professions? In some form or another, academics are associated with knowledge and expertise in a more or less narrow field of research. There exists the popular stereotype of academics being pure theoreticians, not being aware of or connected to people’s everyday life and problems. The metaphor of the ivory tower usually comes up at this point. I won’t make any judgment about this clearly untruthful perception, but will try to give my personal view of how we academics sustain this stereotype.
Starting with the notion that every person (this includes academics!) strives for a positive self-concept, I assume that academics define a good part of their self-concept by drawing on their expertise. To convince others of their knowledgeability, academics tend to give sustained analyses and normative advice when it comes to a discussion related to their field of research. In my case this is stakeholder theory and often leads me to act like a real know-it-all followed by a deadlock in a heated discussion. Let me give you two illustrations:
The first example is an argument I had with a bank manager about value creation of Swiss banks for society at large. Trying to present myself as a knowledgeable person regarding this issue, I was arguing that Swiss banks are destroying societal trust by engaging in ethically questionable business practices. The result of this reasoning was, of course, making my counterpart an advocate of the Swiss banks. My striving to present myself as a competent person ended up by the bank manager explaining me with a wagging finger how the banking business really works and that my perspective is a pure academic one.
The second example is related to a discussion about maximizing profits with a friend of mine who works as an electrician. Although my friend started the conversation with the words “You as a theoretician…”, I had no reason to strengthen my self-concept by taking the role of an academic. The discussion ended with me having learned quite a bit about how business works for electricians, and him becoming acquainted with another perspective on maximizing profits.
Having a lot of experience in the types of interactions given in the first example, I am now trying hard to establish more discourse-oriented discussions when it comes to an issue related to my field of research. This is somewhat threatening my positive self-concept, because I have to drop my own stereotype of academics. Two things are helping me: First, the quote by Socrates “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing” and, second, the knowing that in the end, academics are always right.

Tom Schneider

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Of American “Libertarians” and European “Common Good Economizers”

Which type of economic (and political) system one favors is largely dependent upon what kind of a notion one has of what it means to be human, more specifically, a ‘successful’ or ‘good’ human being - and by extension also a “successful” and “good” society. Yet if our prevailing economic system ought to reflect our collective values of what it means to be successful or good human beings, then it is striking just how unsatisfied we are with the status quo. According to a study by the Bertelsmann foundation, roughly 90% of all Germans and Austrians pine for a new economic system (this figure is likely to be even more striking in economically weaker countries such as those of southern Europe). While the current economic system still tends to find more champions in America than Europe, also the citizens of this largest of capitalistic nations are ripe with frustration, disillusionment and cynicism. The colloquial expression “Corporate America” has long since become synonymous with some large, deceitful bureaucratic machinery that is not governed by the principles of merit, honesty or creativity, but by its own aloof and singular logic of marketing (products and the self, as in Me, Inc.) and Washington DC lobby power.
Yet while Europeans are inclined to seek reform via a notion of human nature based on caring empathy, collective cooperation and sharing of wealth, Americans tend to look towards human success through the prism of healthy competition, individual freedom and merit-based creativity. Never mind that creativity, freedom and caring mean different things for different people, as also to most Europeans and Americans. The point, and difference, between the predominant American versus European stance to fundamental reform is in where in the hierarchy of daily self-awareness these rather ill-defined notions figure. Permit me a brief, although clearly simplified, analysis.

The American is apt to become emotionally roused by anything that threatens his or her “individual freedom” or obstructs the reaping of “merit based fruits of hard work” (both often linked to property rights). This is why Americans, even if they are among the majority of citizens who are demonstratively increasingly among the losers of the current economic system, still tend to extol laissez-faire “free markets” (note the catch word “free”) while scoffing at European notions of statism and “socialism”, which for many is nothing more than the ante-chamber to full-blown totalitarian communism. Thus, a creative, typically American response to the current problems has been in the form of “libertarianism” (See for example the “Libertarian Party” (https://www.lp.org/, or the partially aligned Tea Party movement (http://www.teaparty.org/).

The European, on the other hand, is prone to get emotionally worked up about anything that threatens his or her sense of fairness and material equity, which is looked upon as the direct result of cooperation, sharing and caring. This is why Europeans, even if they are among the relative winners of the current system, tend to still prefer an economic system that constrains wide income disparities and distributes wealth, despite state-coffers that are neigh bankruptcy, and are suspicious of “markets always know best” and are repelled by the winner-takes-all ethos so prevalent in the USA. Hence, a contemporary innovative, typically European solution to the current malaise has been in the form of an “economy of the common good” (see for example, the GWÖ http://snipurl.com/26rosb9).

While an adequate elucidation of what “libertarianism” and “common wealth economy” designate is beyond the scope of this brief analysis (the reader is encouraged to read more on it!), it is once again telling to simply look at the etymological roots of the involved wording. In as much as all words are reflections of the reality we human beings are conscious of, it is the words – and associated stories – we are personally and culturally exposed to, that create our notions of “good” and “successful”. Hence the cultural narrative of “the land of the free and home of the brave” as per the American anthem can easily be understood as freedom from governmental interference and brave, merit based self-determination, while a common European narrative as in the French motto “liberté, egalité, fraternité”, not just enjoins freedom, but notably stresses equality and brotherhood.

At the end of the day, our political leanings and thus our economic preferences are more of a function of our emotions than any rational analysis. They are formed by our personal histories as much as by the histories and stories of the countries and cultures we are part of. A fundamental question that this raises is where and to what extent an international consensus is required and even possible in creating a global economy that is socially and environmentally sustainable in the long-run. Clear is that the effective stewardship of our world economy simply requires domains where all stakeholders are not only involved but also sign on to. The process must be along the lines of libertarianism in as much as any directives cannot be imposed upon individual countries, but the results need to transcend particular interests and be more along the lines of a common good.

Manuel Dawson

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A questionable fascination with size
Recently there was news that U.S. researchers have presented a large project in the field of brain research. A few weeks ago, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), part of the Swiss Institute of Technology, also announced a major project in the same field. Both projects are budgeted to cost billions.

Surely one must hope that the more money (and minds!) is invested in a research project, the greater the chance to achieve breakthrough results. The anticipated output may therefore justify these large expenses. In addition, there are areas of research that require big projects because a large and expensive infrastructure is necessary, as for for example the CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Geneva.
But one should not ignore the flip side of this:

First, size is no guarantee for success. How many scientific discoveries have been made by individuals or, more recently, by small research teams? Small groups can stimulate and combine leading representatives of a field in good harmony, complementing each other without needing billions.

Major projects also carry the risk of binding financial and human resources that then lack elsewhere. "Peripheral areas of research" are neglected. This phenomenon is well known from pharmaceutical companies, where research often focuses on profitable "me-too" products, while little or no research is done on rare diseases (orphan drugs). Thus, the diversity of research can be at stake.

Furthermore, we must not forget the prestige effect of large projects. Only those who have a major project gain status in the scientific community. The ranking of universities might soon be done according to how many major research projects an institution has, and how big these are. The statement of someone involved in a major American project that the label "large project" is a major sales pitch, catches one’s attention in any case.

Finally, one must not forget that a large project also  requires a great coordination and control effort. If, for example, a hundred or more million francs are spent as in the above mentioned projects, no one can afford not to make annual or even quarterly rigorous controls, reports and justifications. Thus considerable resources and precious research time are used for administrative work and coordination meetings. In addition, administrators begin to influence projects and results.

One should therefore not be blinded by the publicity large projects get. "Big" is not automatically "great".

Sybille Sachs