March for Science: Is the basis of the knowledge society being eroded?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

The countries that invested most in research came out of the crisis stronger. [Alex_Traksel/Shutterstock]

After years of sluggish advance, the house of world economics looks generally strong. However, those who ensure the knowledge base for growth, the scientists and researchers, face threats to their system, writes Thomas Jorgensen.

Thomas Jorgensen is senior policy coordinator at the European University Association (EUA).

On 22 April, the March for Science took place in more than 400 cities around the world. The reasons behind the protests are of concern to all of society as the foundations of our prosperity might very well be in danger.

The rules-based, free-trade facilitating international order of the recent past was accompanied by the shared knowledge that development and economic growth were driven by knowledge and innovation. The focus was on looking outwards and getting smarter rather than protecting the ailing industries of the past. Brazil used profits from high commodity prices to invest in knowledge and student exchanges. China harnessed its manufacturing power to invest in world class universities. Being unable to protect jobs, for example in ship building, Denmark and Sweden invested massively in research and development. As a result, student numbers sky-rocketed around the world.

The countries that embraced faith in the knowledge society most enthusiastically were also the most resilient during the Great Recession. Germany and the Scandinavian countries stand out as they were among the strongest both in terms of the depth and duration of the crises. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the crisis, enthusiasm for knowledge is waning.

While the private sector continues to invest in research, governments are cutting back. Public funding has decreased by almost 10% in the Eurozone since the beginning of the financial crisis. The numbers are clear, as is the message from the political decision makers. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Trump administration has also been clear, even brash about its proposed cuts to research funding. The European Union does things more discreetly: the European Commission has given little priority to research in its policies, in fact is was completely absent from Juncker’s State of the Union address last year. This is despite the great successes of European research programmes and the unique way they fund international collaboration. The European Union’s Horizon 2020 research programme, for example, is strained by underfunding, which causes very low success rates (about 10%). This is made worse by further cuts to the programme to fund the less-than-innovative European Fund for Strategic Investment. In the White Paper on the Future of Europe, the European Commission’s suggestions for different paths for the European project, the very real and obvious added value of a common European research programme appears as a side note at best.

At the same time, the re-emergence of nationalism impacts research and innovation, disrupting the flow of talented researchers. No knowledge economy today has sufficient domestic talent to satisfy the demand of universities and industry. In the EU 25% of PhD candidates come from outside the Union. In countries like the UK and Sweden, about half of all PhD candidates, the first step for a career in public or private research, are foreigners. Hindering the movement of these people, through Brexit or travel bans for example, is an extremely serious threat to global research and innovation. The latest case is in Hungary, where an illiberal government passed legislation in early April 2017 that could lead to the shutdown of a leading institution, the Central European University. A preference for national political control over developing international research capacity emphasises the feeling that the research community is under siege.

It is in this context that researchers across the world are protesting. Public funding for basic research is diminishing in many countries, nationalist policies are obstructing the movement of talent and the functioning of research institutions. Moreover, post-factual politics and scorn for experts are marginalising researchers politically. The March for Science movement concerns much more than the researchers themselves, it is a sign that the ones on the shop floor of the knowledge society are feeling that political, social and economic developments are making it difficult for them to contribute to society. It is proof that the foundations of the achievements of recent decades are being eroded at a worrying pace. This is a common concern that goes beyond the labs and libraries and touches all who acknowledge the cultural and economic benefits of the knowledge society.