Sunday, 27 April 2008

Politics of Science

For the last few weeks there's a discussion in Poland, spurred by plans of the Ministry of Higher Education to abandon the "habilitation" part of the career path. The reason for this move is to speed up the possibilities of scientific career for your researchers (an make them stay in Poland!).

Shortly after the plans were revealed, 44 prominent professors from humanist departments of various institutes and universities have published a very strong letter, defending the current model, with its long advancement path, with a message:
in humanist disciplines it is the experience, not the talent, that decides on matureness and value of the research. Maybe in physics or mathematics young bright people may discover something interesting, but in the Polish literature studies or in history or in theory of theater it is the knowledge and experience - the age of the scientists that carries the weight. needless to say, the average age of the authors of the letter is, well, `experienced'.

Now, there are three trains of thought that this letter has stirred in my head.

First, that there must be a very strong difference between the humanities and `hard sciences'. Physics, biology or geology deal with external reality. The measure of a theory or experiment is in its power to show new phenomena in Nature or to explain them. No matter how venerable you are - if your work disagrees with observations it is invalid. It is no wonder that in the `Science Wars' between the postmodernist humanities in the US and the `reality' sciences the favourite weapon of the lit-crit crowd is to postulate that Science is but one of many alternative `world narratives'. This downgrade of Science would allow the humanists to claim their level of freedom from being accurate is generally applicable.
In Poland the Science Wars seem to have taken the additional conflict of generations flavour. Old professors defending their posts by claiming the `deep differences' between, for example, physics and literary criticism - well they might be right after all.

Which brings me to the second train of thought: are these disciplines different in Poland? In several aspects the answer is - yes. For one thing, despite very, very low level of funding for science in Poland, the hard sciences note some successes on the international scale. From astronomy to zoology. On the other hand, the humanities seem to boil in their own sauce, as the saying is. International publications? Who needs them! Certainly very few of international readers... Additionally, as there is no measuring stick of Nature, the Professors judge the validity of research by relationship to their own work. And thus the advancement of a young scientist is based on his social skills and on fitting into the existing trends, structures and cliques. I ask the international reader: do you know of any significant development of huninities originating from Poland in the past 20 years?

Lastly, a word on my personal history: as I have left the official path of active, institutionalized research some fifteen years ago I have no interest in supporting this or that model. In fact, my own career has been positively influenced by my tutors. They have not only encouraged me but also actively helped in my first publications. Without putting their name on the papers - situation very unusual in the master-apprentice model of humanist disciplines, where usually the Master becomes a co-author as a norm, without the real work done (sometimes automatically on the first place). Both my masters thesis and PhD tutors (Jan Blinowski and Jacek Kossut) have followed the rule "these are your calculations so it is your paper". Significantly on the papers with mixed experimental/theoretical content I was usually one of the last authors, which bears witness to the primacy of experiment over theory, at least the kind of theory I was involved with.
So I can say that I was lucky, up to a point, in my career. The relative freedom of research I enjoyed, constrained by the needs to find topics interesting enough for the experimentalists is a value, that I recognize fully today.

And thus, whatever the actual means are I would always support processes that promote young, enthusiastic scientists. This is the only way that our societies can manage to overcome the problems ahead of us. And the role of older, more experienced scientists should be to nurture and grow the talented younger colleagues, not to defend their positions via abstract hierarchies, closed grant applications and politics. Unless their disciplines would devolve to the geriatric obscurantism.

What pride is spelled by the words of Humphry Davy (who had quite a lot of achievements under his belt), who said that his greatest discovery was the discovery of Michael Faraday. Would every professor from the 44 list have something like this to say...

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