Producing Knowledge in a Pandemic Crisis – The Relevance of Researchers’ Work and Working Conditions

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Teresa Carvalho, University of Aveiro & CIPES, Portugal

Since the institutionalisation of the modern university, Higher Education institutions have become one of the main pillars of modern societies, constituting themselves as the main ideological supports of the nation-state, and being the guarantors of democratic and egalitarian societies. In this context, the defence of academic freedom, through the support of the nation-state, was seen as a fundamental pillar for the disinterested advance of knowledge [1, 2, 3].

In the last four decades, with the increasing influence of neoliberal ideology and the spread of public reforms under New Public Management and managerialist influences, the values ​​of commercialisation, market and competition have overtaken other traditional values in academia, like collectivism, cooperation and freedom [4, 5]. At the same time, the European narratives on knowledge society started to be sustained in the idea that knowledge production should focus more on its usefulness, meaning that producing knowledge should have as its main purpose to be useful for society [6, 7, 8].

This epistemological change is seen in different ways. On the one hand, there is a more optimistic vision, with some authors claiming that this is an opportunity to legitimise public funding of science, based on the idea that useful knowledge would include the search for more equal, democratic and fair models of society [9]. On the other hand, there are more negative and pessimistic perspectives, looking at this epistemological turn as a way for Higher Education institutions to seek alternatives to state funding, which could end up by putting science at the service of economic power [4, 6].

The commitment to increase the qualifications of the population, and to develop a European knowledge society, along with the increasing need to find alternatives to substitute state funding to Higher Education institutions, resulted in an exponential growth in the number of doctorates, not only in Europe but throughout the world [10]. Simultaneously, Higher Education institutions lost their capacity to hire new staff in the same proportion as they increase the number of students. The split between teaching and research funding resulted in new governance models based on the notion of research projects [11], and researchers started to be employed for the duration of the projects. The incapacity of Higher eEducation institutions to absorb the high number of doctorates resulted in a spread of the tenure and non-tenure statute, as traditionally known in the United States, all over the world [12, 13], leading to a dominant situation of precarious working conditions in science. A recent European study reported that, in 2016, at the EU level 13.0 % of women researchers and 8.0 % of men working in the Higher Education sector had a part-time position, and, as in other economic sectors, women researchers were more likely than men to be employed under precarious working contracts [14].

Simultaneously, a culture of quantification and metrics started to be dominant in science, with the increasing use of bibliometrics to assess researchers’ merits and their contribution to society [15, 16, 17].

It is in this context that the Covid-19 pandemic appears in the European context. The ways in which HEIs responded to this pandemic results in contradictory signals. Several institutions have developed initiatives that have brought out the traditional matrix values present in Higher Education institutions’ genes.

Putting knowledge at the service of society was evidenced not only in scientific areas directly associated with the attempt to solve the health problem, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, biology and pharmacology, among others; but also in other disciplinary fields such as engineering and also in social sciences and humanities. Among these initiatives one can refer to the search for new vaccines; new tests; the creation of new ventilators; and also to the claims to give special attention to the effects of the health and social crisis on gender relations, and the analysis of its potential economic impact and consequences, among others. Furthermore, higher education institutions also offered active and supportive responses to immediate needs, as in the examples of producing disinfectant gel, creating new tests and doing laboratory tests.

All these initiatives represent good examples of the relevance of producing knowledge for society, and most of them resulted from informal cooperation between researchers, in a free search for new knowledge.

In this respect, the speed of the new knowledge being created is astonishing, as measured by the extraordinary increase in the number of publications concerning Covid-19 in such a short time. (111,000 publications with the word COVID-19 in Google Scholar, with 1,374 in SCOPUS and 465 in Web of Science). If it is undeniable that this is an extraordinary response and represents the true value of science to society, one cannot dismiss the hypothesis that this scientific hyperactivity may also involve responses by thousands of researchers to the anxiety that results from their precarious contracts. Despite the creation of the European Charter of researchers to improve researchers’ working conditions, precariousness has continued to increase. The strikes of academics in some European countries are examples of the way scientists are raising their voices against the degradation of working conditions in academia. The future does not seem to be promising in the new social context. Higher Education institutions are already facing the economic effects of the health crisis, and this is expected to increase, since it is also expected that there will be a decrease in students’ mobility. Furthermore, the experiences with distance learning that have been in place almost worldwide raise the hypothesis that its increased use translates into a reduction in the number of required teachers.

Much of the future of Higher Education in Europe will depend on the choices made between the competition and the cooperation paradigms, just as it will depend on the options in terms of public funding of science. The relevance of science for society is unquestionable today, but it also seems undeniable that the protection of science and knowledge production in society needs to be aligned with dignity in scientific work.

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Acknowledgments: Supported by POCI-01-0145-FEDER-029427- funded by FEDER, through COMPETE2020 - Programa Operacional Competitividade e Internacionalização (POCI), and by national funds (OE), through FCT/MCTES.

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