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Research Policies in Practice


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The final result is: one third of basic research projects and two thirds of expertises, policy studies and applications. It is interesting that among the postdoctoral research projects only a quarter of them were basic research projects. This indicates that the majority of the young PhD researchers were recruited into technocratic social science.


^ Ideology and science

In order to be eligible, research proposals had to treat one of the following themes prescribed by the ministry of science:

  • product management,

  • e-lifestyles,

  • industrial design,

  • informational systems connected with the national and cultural heritage,

  • security,

  • democracy and the management of Slovene state.

Among the projects approved, we find some that do not match with any of the prescribed themes: such is, for example, the historical presentation of the “dissident economists in the time of communism”. For this particular project, there was no niche among the themes, and still the proposal was selected. The proposal could eventually be associated with the last theme “democracy and the management of Slovene state” in an only very loose way. It nevertheless seemed to satisfy the evaluators, since it announced to show how the "dissident economists" demonstrated “that the market economy is the best socio-economic system” and “that the alternative solutions proposed by communism or self-managed socialism were wrong and forced to fail in theory and practice”. Such a goal can hardly be considered scientific. One may wonder why such an ideological proposal could meet the approval of the evaluators. And yet the foreign evaluators ranked it among the four best proposals. The support they gave to an openly apologetic project raises serious doubts about the reliability of the foreign experts conducting the 2005 call. The domestic reviewer graded the project so poorly that it could not have been approved had only his/her evaluation been taken into account.


Interdisciplinarity

The “themes-oriented” contest gives advantage to the experts who have specialist knowledge on the prescribed fields, or have access to relevant documentation, archives and so on. For example, the subject of “e-lifestyle” or “informational systems connected with the national and cultural heritage” can be developed only by somebody who has access to informational sources and has the expertise in this particular field. Many selected proposals have won the competition because the applicants had specific knowledge or exclusive access to relevant documentation. In some cases, especially in the humanities projects, the applying institutions were the authorised guardians of the relevant documentation.

This kind of advantage is against the traditional idea of scientific community where the scientific achievements and documentation should be available to everybody.15 Scientific achievements can only be valuated through discussions in scientific communities; it is in this way that they enter as productive elements into new scientific practices.

If some researchers, keeping research results or archives for themselves, can in this way achieve the advantage over what they may consider as rivals, and not as colleagues in science, then the scientific community is in danger, and the public cannot profit from the scientific work. Individuals or institutions that enjoy this kind of advantage may further be encouraged to block scientific debates and communication in order to protect their fields of expertise from their rivals and to defend their quasi-feudal domains. In this way, they obstruct the discussion among researchers and scientists about the identification of problems, scientific approach, and methodology. Losing this possibility, scientific community loses control over scientific work – only because a small number of researchers, who can gain benefits from hiding their work from the public, pursue their non-scientific interest. Destroying scientific communities, these researchers put themselves in the service of bureaucratic apparatus and convert research into technocratic instrument. Unfortunately, disintegration of scientific co-operation is gradually becoming a social fact that contaminates all the parties involved, not only the few that have broken the communication. Once the communication channels of scientific community are broken, it is not possible to restore them so easily.


There are a number of such cases on the list of proposals. The “themes-oriented basic research” application call invited them to use their expertise in a certain field in order to develop a basic research out of it. Behind this, there is a presumption that immediate data brought to the daylight by the empirical research better lead to general conclusions than basic research. Is it possible to “produce contemporary [sic!] theoretical concepts…”, as one of the selected basic research proposals describes its own project, “… on the base of the preceding empirical research”?

Conversion of previous applicative research into basic research raises several questions. The applications are led by the commissioners' interests and by the commissioners' understanding of their interests. Consequently, this type of research is under strong ideological pressure, and the very formulation of its problématique may be permeated by "practical concerns" as they appear from the point of view of one of the involved agents (i.e., the commissioner). There is a strong probability that such a research is just a technical attempt at solving ideologically formulated practical tasks. In the case where the commissioner of the applicative research is the same governmental agency that now wants to support the basic research performed by draining "general" consequences from the previous case-oriented applicative investigation, there is a strong chance that the whole process is trapped into a vicious circle: basic research then provides a general or "theoretical" support to the ideological presuppositions that have informed the initial applicative investigation. This may mean only further mystification of the concrete field of problems – and further degradation of research towards ideological apologetics of pre-established ideological premises. While such a vicious process may be epistemologically objectionable, it certainly produces real social effects and contributes to the transformation of social relations.

However, it was not only the fetishism of empirical approach that led towards the strong support to the conversion of the previous applicative empirical research into the basic research. Above all, this attitude emerges from a new conception of the interdisciplinary research. This time it is not the interdisciplinary ideology that Louis Althusser analysed in his lectures of 1967 when “interdisciplinary” was obviously a part of the common scientific jargon.16 The term now promotes interdisciplinarity in the sense that various types of research - basic research, applications and development – should be interconnected. As declared in Slovene and European official documents, this mixing will be one of the priorities in the allocation of state financial support to research in future.17 This is a political decision with far-reaching implications. It means that the state will in the future give privilege to research commissioned by corporations, i.e., by the private capital. This raises the question of diversion of public funds into private pockets. It also announces a serious attack upon the public nature of scientific work: private investors into research have genuine interest to keep its results secret as long as they can commercially be exploited.18

Authors of the book ^ The New Production of Knowledge19 advocate the interdisciplinarity of various research types arguing that the realm of application can be opened for “new research agenda” as well as for basic research. The usual proceeding from basic research to application can therefore be reversed. Authors give the example of hypersonic aircraft construction, a technological research that raised a wide range of questions which could not rely much on the previous research and experimental knowledge. We must add that every innovation creates at least a small “break” or discontinuity with respect to the previous knowledge otherwise it would not be an innovation. More important “breaks”, like the invention of electricity, could not be made in continuity with the problems of the preceding paradigm.20

The fundamental rethinking of science that may be needed in the present historical period can only be envisaged if the request that science be immediately "useful" is lifted.

The present commentary about interdisciplinarity does not try to re-establish a hierarchical order where basic research as supreme knowledge would be situated at the top and technological applications at the bottom of the list. We are not proposing a teleological view of knowledge, but would rather want to reaffirm the awareness that each type of research has its own modus operandi. If we mix various types of research in an “interdisciplinary” way, we neglect the differences among them, i.e., the fundamental conditions of knowledge production required by one or the other type of research.

We could say that application in natural sciences is result-oriented scientific work. In social sciences application, result, product or “problem-solving” orientation raises concerns about how we have determined the frame within which solutions to particular problems are to be reached. Application in social sciences refers to empirical research which is identified to immediate intervention into real social practices.21 Consequently, the analysis of “real social practices” is imprudently identified to empirical research with immediate practical incidence. This does not make much sense, since an empirical research can only be initiated if it relies upon a background of certain theses, i.e., propositions that allow researchers to determine the basic questions from which the research proceeds. Reflexive control of this background is essential for theoretical practice. If the goal the research has to reach is determined in a heteronymous way, e.g., by the commissioner, there are all the chances that the research will only technically instrumentalise certain procedures with the aim to find a solution to an ideologically defined problem.

Overestimation of empirical research in social research, i.e., the so praised “objectivity” of empirical research, leads to the presumption that empirical research is the best and the most reliable way that leads to theoretical generalisations.

This presumption has been leading evaluators while they were making the selection from among the “thematic-oriented” applications. They highly graded the “basic research” that used previous empirical results as the driving force for developing "theoretical" research and "theoretical" generalisations. Experience in empirical research obviously qualified researchers as theoreticians. Distinction and delimitation between the two practices (applied and basic research) has not been questioned in any of the proposals. The switch from one to the other has consistently been taken as unproblematic.

Research proposals, when performing the conversion from the “empirical” into the “basic research”, clearly show the dangerous consequences of such a move. In one case, a project that proposed to explore the internet, showed an inclination towards the hypothesis of technological determination, but without spelling it out, even not seeming to be aware of it. In another case, the use of a particular method to investigate social networks, was entrusted the mission to oppose the presumably paternalistic role of the state and to advocate social flexibility.


^ The use of theoretical concepts

Themes-oriented basic research proposals make use of notions such as “lifestyle”, “social capital” and “liberalism”. As these concepts make part of longer traditions in the social sciences, they make a strong impression at the first sight. Closer analysis reveals the weakness of these concepts and of their use in the applications.

Liberalism, for example, is an expression with several meanings: it is a political notion and an economic term22, and, within the field of economy, it may again mean many things23. Therefore, the use of “liberalism” as a unified concept hides contradictions, political struggles and theoretical heterogeneity that are covered by the same expression. The effect of such a strategy is that what remains of the notion, is its ideological aura only. In this way, the concept is transformed into an instrument used in political and social battles. In a time when "liberalism" has no political opposition in the established political apparatuses, the term is used as a mere signifier that has no content and can be freely attached to any anew produced version of "liberalism".24

The origin of the other two concepts – “social capital” and “lifestyle” – is slightly different, but the final effect is quite similar. In 1977, ^ The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought presents the expression of “lifestyle” as a popular expression only.25 In 2001, the same word was introduced as a “concept”, as one of the three meanings or derivatives of the general concept “social class”. Putting it under the “social class” umbrella, one hides the descriptive and instrumental use that the notion “lifestyle” is only able to perform. The dictionary points to it clearly: “Social scientists have also carried out descriptive investigations of social differentiation and market research companies have devised occupational classifications in order to give an indication of lifestyles and consumption patterns.”26 Therefore, we can accept “lifestyle” as a concept only under the condition that we agree that marketing is nowadays a dominant discipline in social sciences.

The third notion, “social capital”, is widely used in various meanings. It has been stabilised as a theoretical concept by Pierre Bourdieu: in his theory, it designates an asset deriving from family ties and other similar social relations or networks that would provide to a certain person more or less of advantageous "sociality" that can be used in social promotion, transformed into economic capital etc. Accordingly, in Bourdieu's theory, it is an extrinsic social category beyond the individual's control. Nowadays its meaning is slippery. The struggle over the meaning of the expression has not been finished yet.27 In most its usages, though, it has definitely moved away from Bourdieu’s concept. In the mainstream usage, it now refers to the individuals' “trust” and “loyalty” to social organisations; the predominant idea, according to International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Science, is that "social capital" is a personalised (intrinsic) category that gives the measure of “trust” or “loyalty” that individuals develop in their voluntary engagements, informal networks and associations. “Trust” is understood as an ethical category that leads individuals towards effort at work, risk-taking, flexibility, and social efficiency. If trust is missing in a particular social group, this indicates a certain dominant ethos or the cultural particularities of a population, like family egoism and lack of the trust in state in Southern Italy and Sicily (in reference to the mafia). Consequently, “social capital reflects enduring cultural norms passed across generations by socialization, norms that cannot be explained in terms of reasonable responses to current circumstances”.28 The latest meaning of "social capital" has evidently been forged as an instrument to propagate a certain type of behaviour highly valued in societies that reproduce by their members' flexibility and risk-taking.

We have briefly analysed the usage of these concepts in the basic research applications. We assessed that the use of “liberalism” conceals discrepancies among various meanings of the term and hides the indeterminacies of the notion. "Lifestyle" has obviously been promoted to the status of a concept by a metonymic replacement of one expression for another: what used to be "social class" is now "lifestyle". By quietly adapting its notional apparatus to the processes of "culturalisation" of class conflicts and other social tensions, this social science renounces to analyse them and adopts an ideological, not a theoretical approach to its ideological and no more theoretical object of knowledge. In the use of the notion of “social capital”, one meaning has replaced the other, transforming social relations and conflicts into cultural norms and behaviour.

These procedures result in signifiers emptied of content and open to assume any meaning that may be suitable at a given moment. These notions operate in a paradoxical way: their aura of "scientificity" expands over the context and enhances its credibility – while the "scientific" context conceals their emptiness. Through various transformations, these notions have become “signifiants flottants” that have no content and can be used for the needs of the moment. According to Lévi-Strauss, such a symbolic strategy is contrary to the idea of science: theory has to endeavour to eliminate “signifiants flottants” or at least to control them. Toleration towards them produces deplorable consequences: e.g., it promotes marketing into a distinguished discipline among the social sciences and everyday political jargon into a legitimate element in scientific contexts29.


^ Autonomy of science

We might look towards the rejected proposals with the hope that they develop some kind of an alternative scientific practice. Among the rejected social science research proposals there were seven projects in the basic research, eleven expertises, five policy studies, eighteen applications, and three “strategic hybrids”. This description shows that scientific community adapted to the requirements and expectations of the commissioner. Only one sixth of the whole set of rejected projects, i.e., seven proposals, aimed at a basic research work, the rest had chosen the strategies that would increase their chances to win the contest. Finally, they were right since most of the basic project proposals - four in total - were among those who were rejected immediately in the first phase of evaluation process.

In the frame of the project-financed research scheme, scientists do not propose properly scientific projects, or they do it very rarely. It may be that the programme-financed "research groups" (within the longer-term – 5 years – financed research) perform more scientific activities, but the allocation of funds is closely related to the attributed status of “excellence”. This attribution has more to do with university hierarchies and political influence of certain groups than with their scientific performance.30 Project financing that will be the main scheme of financing in the future, already now excludes basic research and real scientific practices. Nevertheless, persons in charge of research policies consider that “thematic-oriented basic and applied research” is still not enough practically oriented. We may expect that the expression “basic research” will soon be completely erased from public research policy.31 The present research context does not provide conditions for scientific research, so in the future it will probably have to be practiced either in breach of the valid regulations and in secrecy, or outside the presumably scientific and research institutions. This obviously despised research practice seems to be in the process of radical extinction.

The eventual withdrawal of scientific research and theoretical practice into illegality will have an additional consequence for the research community. Dissolution of scientific practices will harm the whole community, not only those stubborn scientists who insist on abstract epistemological questions. The only possible reference point that the world of research can recognise is scientific community: it has the authoritative position to exercise comments, criticism, and, finally, also to control the research work. It is so due to the general process of verification of scientific knowledge, described by Pierre Bourdieu, according to whom “scientific knowledge” is approved through legitimation that can only be carried out by the scientific community.32 If scientific practice is endangered or illegal, the reference point is becoming weak and pale and cannot perform its task any more. This point (the process of auto-reflexivity or, according to Bourdieu, “intersubjective validation”) is very important, because it is a precondition that makes scientific practice an autonomous social field. If science loses its own field, it is left to the mercy of the commissioners and their aims. This is true about any science, and even more about the human and social sciences that have a “weak autonomy”. Pierre Bourdieu defines social and human scientist as someone who “makes part of world s/he tries to objectivate; and science s/he produces is only one of the forces that combat in the world.”33 The position of social and human sciences is much “weaker” and is more dependent than that of any other science precisely because it is always already a part of the world they try to understand or explain. For this reason, human and social sciences even more depend on the preservation of their “weak autonomy”; otherwise they will lose their reference point. Inherent contradiction of research community is that, while it adapts to the demands of commissioners and desperately searches a niche for survival, it works against its fundaments. This is a desperate strategy that leads scientific practices towards dissolution, while condemning researchers to slave for accidental commissioners.


^ The goals of the competition and their attainment: the case of the humanities

We have analysed the part of the competition of the year 2005 pertaining to the humanities without entering into the analysis of the proposed projects themselves. We have rather examined some of the salient features of the competititon in the light of the main purposes for which the funding of research "by projects" has been introduced. In the sections that follow, we will try to asses to what extent the 2005 competition succeeded to carry out the following main purposes:




  1. secure social and economic relevance of research;

  2. encourage more rational and economical organisation, process of work, use of human resources in research institutions;

  3. introduce competition among research institutions, and, as a consequence, secure a fairer distribution of funds.




The figure below shows the institutions whose projects were selected for funding:



Institution

Sole

First partner

Second partner

Scientific-research institute

of Slovene academy of sciences and arts

10

1

3

Faculty of Philosophy, University of Ljubljana

4







Scientific-research centre – Koper /

Capodistria

2







Faculty of Law, University of Ljubljana




1




Institute of geodetic, Ljubljana




1




Institute for recent history, Ljubljana




1




Slovene ethnographic institute, Klagenfurt /

Celovec







1




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