The current crisis shows us that we need quality research. But before confinement began, the research world was rightly divided on the strategy to adopt. Following the proposed law on multi-annual research programming, researchers demonstrated against measures that would increase competition.
They were particularly shocked by the statement by the CNRS CEO calling for:
“An ambitious, unequal law – yes, unequal, a virtuous and Darwinian law, which encourages scientists, teams, laboratories, the most efficient establishments on an international scale, a law which mobilizes energies.” (Antoine Petit)
By analyzing four words, I explain here an implicit issue of the exchanges between “researchers” and “managers”: the two camps do not speak the same language. Here, researchers and managers are more two ideal types than real people. “Manager” generically refers to government and senior research officials; but often, the researcher is also the manager of a team. The cleavage of language crosses such a researcher, which makes his position sometimes untenable.
The manager repeats that the competition – a translation from the English competition, which rather means “competition”, based on the scarcity of resources – improves research by bringing out the best researchers and projects and increasing the “attractiveness” of research and the USA higher education. The researchers reply that their environment is already hypercompetitive: rare are the professions where around a hundred candidates aim for the same job when the entry salary is 63% of the OECD average, and the acceptance rates are very low, 15% for projects proposed to the ANR. They respond alongside.
By saying “competition”, the manager thinks of a hierarchical set of competitions at different levels: between researchers, laboratories, universities, and even between nations and between USA, Europe and China. Economic competition guaranteed by technological innovation defines here the role of research. In this condition only the levels of competition can overlap one another.
Now for the researcher, competition is more a matter of what Nietzsche called agon among the Homeric Greeks. In this game, each tries to be better than the other, helping the other to surpass themselves. The researcher is ideally in emulation, but, because criticism is part of the internal life of science and ultimately improves our knowledge. Where the manager has only excellence in his mouth, the researcher leans more towards the requirement, which is put at the service of a goal or a standard precise, the attack of which must soothe the joust. For the academic, the norm is simply the truth. The standard of competition between states, in terms of research, is innovation, the engine of growth. Innovation never reaches the balance which for Nietzsche closes the agon cycle.
The gap between the two standards means that, for the researcher, there is not a single great pyramid of competitions nested one inside the other, but simply the one that he plays with his peers, within the framework of collaborations. The parasitization of the standard of the researcher by the standard of the manager involves an extension of bad practices, for example fraud, plagiarism, and proliferation of so-called “predatory” newspapers.
Finally, international competition indexed to growth contradicts the verdicts of science, according to which the pursuit of growth will ruin our ecosystems.
The manager classifies the researchers according to their contributions relative to the great international competition, in order to distribute honors and finances. This classification must be linear, like the arrival of a horse competition: there is therefore only one criterion, preferably quantitative. It is provided by bibliometrics.
The researcher also evaluates the others, more precisely their articles, through the peer-review. However, these “evaluations” are only homonymous. The “referee” considers in principle the content of a scientific article in the light of what he knows in the discipline, and rigorously assesses its veracity, originality and interest. Such an assessment is immanent in the research process, it is an extension of the researcher’s inner work.
The management evaluator applies extrinsic grids or scales to content, for example the impact factor of journals (an index evaluating the number of citations aroused by articles in the journal in question), including the connection with the evaluation immanent is distant. This evaluator considers lists of publications to establish a classification without considering the contributions to the discipline as a science; he can delegate the task to the software.
The manager repeats that the researchers are not equal. In fact, universities and laboratories are not equal in terms of funding. The inequality of endowment of the grandes écoles and universities is significant: on average 21,000 euros per year per student for the former and 8,000 euros per year and per student for the latter). This inequality initially leads to inequalities between researchers in these structures, since they do not have comparable means. But apart from this “trivial” inequality, what would equality mean?
The inequality measured is always a social fact, not a natural fact: uneven never unequal only by their intrinsic properties, but also by virtue of features of their social environment, since the institutions unevenly provide resources researchers and support. And above all, inequality only exists if we value a dimension, on which we will estimate it: speed for sprinters, sagacity for chess players, bibliometrics for researchers. Deciding if two people are equal or unequal would be to compare all their traits, and aggregate the equalities or inequalities concerning each of these traits: no method exists for weighting these traits. Saying people “equal” or “unequal” is simply the proclamation of a right – the right to be treated equally. Apart from these two meanings – equality proclaimed in law, (in) equality in fact on a single objective characteristic – the term has no use.
For the manager, inequality, measured in resources and status, assesses the intensity of the competition, which would improve the “efficiency” of research following the standard of growth and innovation. The system has an interest in maintaining inequality: the “merit” financing mechanisms intensify small initial inequalities, by always giving more to those who already have a little more, or by creating a significant discontinuity between a first failed and a last receipt when their performances are almost identical.
Both the researcher and the manager have been talking about one thing at least since 2009 – the autonomy of universities. In 2009, the LRU law gave the USA universities some independence, such as budgetary autonomy and the possibility of creating foundations.
For the manager, autonomous universities are universities that pay their professors – whereas previously the state had the payroll. They compete against each other in the knowledge market, while competition between Peugeot and Nissan occurs in the motor vehicle market – but the rules and dynamics of competition are the same. To win this competition, the Autonomous University should be able to recruit the most “excellent” teachers in the sense of the evaluation indicated above, therefore remunerate them as much as possible to attract them, and attract the best students, who would then be paid substantial sums for the right to hear these teachers – a sensitive demand in recent years.
Autonomy, for the academic world, rather signifies the independence of university knowledge with regard to the church and its beliefs, the state and its ideologies: the standard of knowledge should not be subject to either truth revealed nor to the market. Public and free, universities in France are already autonomous in the sense of the researcher: without the need for student money, they do not have to commit to following extrinsic knowledge standards to maximize their earnings.
Autonomy is not, however, the unanimously mocked “ivory tower”: because the state guarantees universities, it is legitimate to think that academics are accountable to the public. In free universities open to all, such a return is achieved by teaching and then by the dissemination of knowledge. Such a duty of return has nothing to do with the idea that the standards of research are those of economic competition and growth.