‘Towards a non-extractive and care-driven academy’

Article by Vijay Kolinjivadi, Gert Van Hecken, Jennifer Casolo, Shazma Abdulla and Rut Elliot Blomqvist.

Abstract

The white gaze permeates many aspects of even the most critical disciplines. In this piece, we offer some thoughts on how we might reclaim what the university could be – a place that equips people with the knowledge they need to unlearn/unmake/dismantle the framings and worldviews that lend themselves to white supremacy and other forms of oppression more broadly.

Across the country and around the world, people are coming out to denounce systemic racism in their institutions and in society more broadly. The Covid-19 pandemic has offered a magnifying lens to the deep-rooted inequalities and injustices prevalent in society. It has also shown how inequalities, such as those along racial, gender, and class lines, are reinforced and compounded in a relatively short time span in the efforts to return to “normal”. Returning to business-as-usual is precisely what institutions, governments, and corporations are so desperately seeking. Yet, the world before and during the pandemic was/is premised on white supremacy, colonial legacies of natural resource extraction and bondage of cheap labour. Consequently, returning to “normal” is not something that we should ethically and politically aspire for. As Indian writer Arundhati Roy writes, the pandemic should be a “portal” to deconstruct, and transform the world that we knew before. This does not mean making business-as-usual more comprehensive, holistic, or inclusive. Rather, it involves the harder work of “un-learning” and “un-doing” the current model of productivist and extractivist development disguised as modernity and “progress”. By prioritizing careful attention and consideration of multiple ways of knowing and relating to the world, we can be better positioned to support ongoing struggles in re-building a world premised upon justice above all else.

Universities and institutions of higher-learning have an important responsibility in these “unlearning” and “rebuilding” processes as they offer privileged spaces for enhancing critical thinking in dialogue with constant societal change. Improving societies by prioritizing justice is a core task of universities in the advancement of science and technology as collective commons. After all, what good is generating knowledge if it cannot be (re)produced, accessed, and understood by all? Even if scholars have advanced many long and fruitful discussions on how to break free from colonial legacies and extractive development models, these initiatives risk losing their meaning if they are inscribed into an academic environment which is both principled and conditioned upon competition and a growth-oriented knowledge economy. Much of the wealth of academic insights get sucked into the aspirations of an expansionary university in competition within a globalized academic industry. This hollowing-out takes place due to the ways by which the process of generating knowledge (including the labour of researchers and their collaborators) gets parameterized and packaged into predetermined “outputs” as stipulated in grant proposals and departmental performance rubrics. These quantified metrics are then used to justify academic positions (and indeed whole departments). The pressure to aspire for growth within academia risks knowledge getting detached from its situated context, losing its meaning, and instead becoming an end-product in itself.

Worse still, this highly uneven process generates cultures of distrust, hierarchy, competition, and fast-scholarship in the race to produce more in the least amount of time. While obviously reflecting different contexts of privilege, the underlying mechanisms and logic behind this production process is no different from the discipline of a factory floor, in which researchers extract knowledge and are themselves the subject of extraction. This hierarchy of extraction can be seen when, for example, junior scholars, themselves engaged in extracting knowledge from third parties for their own projects, may be obliged to undertake menial tasks unrelated to their own research and which serve to benefit only their superiors. In addition, knowledge production in academia is reserved to those who are the best-placed to compete in this game, which is often to the disadvantage of women, people of colour and junior researchers, and those without academic credentials (including local community members who are often the “subjects” of research with whom especially social science scholars interact with in advancing either theoretical or applied knowledge).

This factory-floor model of academic production rooted in asymmetrical power relations  replicates a singular way of shaping and understanding knowledge generation. It is premised upon optimizing knowledge products as outputs dependent upon the labour (e.g. academic faculty and support staff) and resources (e.g. grant funding, partnerships, networks, and research “subjects”) required to produce these outputs in the most efficient way. This extractive process of mobilizing labour and resources for knowledge production cannot be centred on any individual, but is situated within a cutthroat industry where peer-reviewed journal impact factors, publication numbers, successful grant applications, global partnerships, graduate programs and percentage of successful graduates and even the number of followers on twitter are all instrumentalized for the purposes of showcasing which university, which department, or which faculty member wins the ‘gold medal’ in the globalized academic Olympics. The competitive tendency here already takes extraction and instrumentalization of relationships in academic collaboration as a normalized starting point and then builds on this mode of operation as a way to gain a greater share within the knowledge economy.

The instrumentalization within academia extends beyond internal collaborations within the academy to historically colonial relations of academics and their research “subjects” in the field. The relationship between historical colonial legacies in the perpetuation of the knowledge economy is indeed a serious cause for concern. Indigenous Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues, for instance, that social science “research” is itself one of the “dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary” having been inextricably linked historically to European imperialism and colonialism in terms of how “knowledge about indigenous peoples was collected, classified, and then represented back to the West.” Bhambra and colleagues take this further by stating that “[t]he foundation of European higher education institutions in colonized territories itself became an infrastructure of empire, an institution and actor through which the totalizing logic of domination could be extended; European forms of knowledge were spread, local indigenous knowledge suppressed, and native informants trained” (p.5).

This white gaze of a singular understanding of the world then gets reproduced through the production metrics and standards imposed by the knowledge economy. Implicit extractivism in the academy operates by failing to recognize and then act upon the asymmetrical ways that knowledge extraction preys upon the precarious positions of more vulnerable scholars. As scholars in Development Studies in particular, we acknowledge how insights from the so-called “Global South” have historically served and continue to serve Northern universities and research institutes. This process of translating diverse knowledges into a singular easy-to-digest narrative is precisely how white supremacy circulates, even unconsciously, in reproducing the homogenizing and simplifying patterns that have shaped colonial development since the 15th century. The factory-house model of organizing and optimizing knowledge generation follows the tradition of resource exploitation since colonial times and as such, carries with it the white gaze of what counts (and doesn’t count) as legitimate knowledge. A white gaze extends to the built-in hierarchy of knowledge producers propagated by national research foundations, where non-academic knowledge producers and researchers from the Global South are accepted only as informants or field assistants, with an incredibly skewed scale of remuneration. Ultimately, the academy extracts wealth from marginalized communities and organizations and justifies these logics by making those not under the accepted institution marginal, invisible, underfunded and with limited access to knowledge production resources.

Academics can no longer be permitted to surf this wave of deeply extractivist practice in how knowledge is generated. Transforming the university requires not only turning the mirror upon ourselves as academics in reflecting upon our practice, but also more fundamentally in actively dismantling the knowledge economy that is structured in the constant prospection, appropriation, and standardization of intellectual labour. Decolonizing the university means collectively re-establishing “the terms upon which the university (and education more broadly) exists, the purpose of the knowledge it imparts and produces, and its pedagogical operations”. Such an effort requires fundamentally different ways of political organization in how knowledge gets generated. In other words, we academics must self-reflect at the same time as we act to transform the university and society more broadly away from systemic injustices. Academics have a notorious tendency to pensively sit back and comfortably theorize on ways to dismantle systems of inequality, even as we paradoxically benefit from those very same systems of inequality in perpetuating the knowledge economy. Consequently, our privileged capacity to self-reflect risks replicating the very structures some of us write so vehemently against, particularly in the competitive arena of instrumentalizing academic relationships for the purposes of career advancement. The professionalization of social justice critique becomes trapped within a “hall of mirrors” whereby the emancipatory potential of co-produced knowledge gets neutralized by the predatory tendencies of the academic industry in which “knowledge products” are continuously stacked as if on an endless pile.

Having recognized these tendencies, the academy’s approach to responding to these challenges has been to performatively showcase universities as being “inclusive.” “Decolonization” becomes a topical buzzword for which academic pursuits can be channeled to tap into new sources of knowledge outputs for more socially-just economic growth in the knowledge economy. This new “decolonial frontier” is violently at odds with what decolonization is actually about; the frontier becomes a new way to extinguish any possibility of real transformation. As Tuck and Yang have argued, decolonization is not a metaphor; it must never be co-opted by being restricted to a checklist composed of “diversity and inclusion” statements by the university, institutionalized “codes of conduct”, or integrating “decolonial” curricula into more holistic graduate programs and the like. For Tuck and Yang, decolonization refers specifically to restoring native lands that were violently usurped in the process of settler colonialism. Elsewhere, it refers to dismantling the structures of European imaginaries that have to shape how “development” is defined and understood.

If recognition exists about these structural problems so ever-present in the expansionary aims of the academic industry, why does it remain so hard to impart long-lasting change that goes beyond optics? Like broader society as a whole, the answer lies in the uneven ways that power operates to discipline those who complain or deviate from standard practice in the academic profession. For instance, speaking out about some of these concerns has disproportional implications for junior scholars, and especially women and people of colour, who risk compromising their future prospects in the academy by exposing any of its potential flaws. On a broader scale, many research participants in the generation of knowledge are not even afforded a space to enter into the academy’s walls. They remain as “missing co-authors”, perpetually denied legitimacy to change the academy from within. Rather, they are charged with being essential to the research enterprise; essentially inputs for the production of knowledge products. Moreover, it is they who must absorb the implications of these “products” that inevitably shape their own livelihood capacities and potentials.

To re-emphasize, this intervention is not targeted to the specific actions of individual scholars (though these do need to be held accountable), but is rather exposing a systemic problem. As academics ourselves, we are equally complicit, and feel that it is our duty to support any type of alternative that confronts the root-causes of extractive practices in the academy. While saying this, we also recognize that writing an intervention like this comes from a position of privilege, which would not be afforded to many others, but this is precisely why we do this. Just as remaining silent about one’s own racial privilege, while claiming to “not be a racist” is how white supremacy continues to thrive, remaining silent about one’s privilege in the academic class structure is complicity in its reproduction. Either we collectively take active steps to end these exploitative ways of doing research or we stop making performative claims that we are somehow making the university more just, inclusive, and diverse.

How do we then build counter-power to address the exploitative logics underpinning the academic endeavour? Changing current academic culture and its underlying perverse incentive structure requires us to collectively stand up against an unfair system, while taking into account that any type of fundamental change is slow, therefore placing the onus particularly on the more established scholars with more or less fixed positions to change the rules of the game. Given the privilege of established scholars, this is of course a delicate process that must be conducted with great transparency and accountability to avoid reproducing new forms of inequality. Building resistance to business-as-usual does not require reinventing the wheel. We must join with feminist scholars who unequivocally state that “cultivating space to care for ourselves, our colleagues, and our students is, in fact, a political activity when we are situated in institutions that devalue and militate against such relations and practices” (p.1239). Likewise, “slow scholarship”, which refers to transforming academic institutions from the ground-up, by actively resisting against “the culture of speed in the academy and ways of alleviating stress while improving teaching, research, and collegiality”, offers a path for fundamentally transforming the power relations of knowledge production.

There is an increasing wealth of resources, strategies, and alternatives that are being advanced to stimulate fundamental structural changes in how the academy operates. By no means an exhaustive list, below we identify some key examples of how to move forward. These examples are even more relevant in a context of deep uncertainty and increasing precarity as a result of the global pandemic.

  • A minifesto for “building collectives of care rather than mere departments” by unlearning the boundaries of academic discipline;
  • Developing a ‘moral economy’ of knowledge co-creation that prioritizes the process over the end outcome and encourages timeless and caring spaces of interaction for genuine creativity, collegiality, and joy to be the drivers of knowledge generation;
  • Building an “ethics of mentorship” in which established scholars cede place to the learning trajectories of junior scholars and to prioritize quality and process over quantity;
  • Re-commoning knowledge for all by rethinking publication strategies to damage the pocket books of for-profit publishers and synchronously redefining and requalifying our “production”;
  • Building meaningful, non-extractive, and care-ful partnerships and collaborations for engaged social research. This requires engaging different publics, being comfortable to refine or even reject earlier ideas, fostering safe spaces to be more vulnerable about fears and emotions in the research process, directly linking research outcomes with activism and advocacy in highly political arenas, and generally amplifying the potential impact of our scholarship rather than moving on to the next product that “counts” to administrators”;
  • Reparations and redistribution of research funding such that recognition of non-academics in general and academics of the Global South is not just symbolic. A systemic reorganization process is required within the academy to recognize the shared knowledge producing labour of all partners in the process – from cleaners within the walls of the institute to participants in research endeavours in all corners of the world and in contributing to the knowledge commons;
  • Being accountable to the responsibilities that come with privilege, for example by taking the lead in shaking up evaluation protocols and shifting how accountability and evaluation metrics are established at the university and departmental level (“good enough is the new perfect”) or by ceding place in the publication race and instead empower and embolden younger and more precarious scholars to advance this agenda in their institutes and from their own lived experiences;
  • Building counter power through Internationalist unions of intellectual workers, involving unionisation beyond the established Western trade unions which often just support the privileges of the few university employees with tenure;
  • Making the work of universities function as integrated parts in a very different social metabolism – meaning that social reproduction both of research and of the university upkeep itself becomes an integral responsibility for all those affiliated with the university. In other words, this implies that the work of maintaining the academic endeavour cannot be cost-shifted to cheaper or more precarious labour, but must be a core responsibility of those who live and breathe within the university.

*We are incredibly grateful to Frances Cleaver, Tomaso Ferrando, Frédéric Huybrechs, Nathalie Pipart, Hanne Van Cappellen, and Juan Sebastian Vélez Triana for useful comments and suggestions provided on earlier drafts.

Vijay Kolinjivadi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Development Policy (IOB), University of Antwerp (Belgium).

Gert Van Hecken is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Policy (IOB), University of Antwerp (Belgium) and Research Associate at Nitlapan-Universidad Centroamericana (Nicaragua).

Jennifer Casolo is Research Associate at Nitlapan-Universidad Centroamericana (Nicaragua), and at the Pluriversidad Maya-Ch’orti’ (Guatemala).

Shazma Abdulla is a writer, innovator, and community organizer who focuses on social inequities, racial justice, and spatial justice. She is affiliated with the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Canada.

Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a doctoral candidate at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden exploring the transdisciplinary fields of utopian studies, environmental humanities, and political ecology to not only consider the structure and meaning of environmentalist political visions but also the role of literary and cultural theory in these fields. 

[The above article was submitted to the slowscience blog by Gert Van Hecken. The original source is https://beyonddevelopment.net/towards-a-non-extractive-and-care-driven-academy/.]

Our slow science manifesto for a new praxis in higher education in post-corona times is now published

The last couple of months were for many of us a very strange period. Life as we knew it came to a halt, for better or for worse. Even though Belgian higher education continued their activities, the effects on the daily work and life of everyone involved changed dramatically.

For those involved in Slow Science, the pandemic meant the cancellation of this year’s doctoral school course, while focusing our attention on those other tasks requiring our attention. In the past weeks, we have worked on a slow science manifesto for a new praxis in higher education in post-corona times.

In this manifesto, we provide an overview of the effects of the corona pandemic on different groups within the university, and the specific needs we are facing. We urge governments, universities and funding agencies to address the various concerns and take actions to alleviate pressure on the short and long term.

You can find the manifesto in French, Dutch, and English on our website. We also encourage you to sign the petition if you support our aims and demands.

If you have an action or event you want to share with Slow Science, feel free to get in touch on info@slowscience.be.

Would you like to get involved? Have a look at our ‘get involved’ page, or get in touch!

Ethics Week 2019

The first week of December, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel organizes an ‘Ethics Week‘ with a focus on research ethics. They explicitly invite people from the Slow Science Network to participate and/or share their critical questions.

The topics discussed include issues that are central to the slow science movement , such as the problem of “publish or perish” and discussions related to positionality and diversity.

For more information and to register, see the website.

Slow Science & Sustainability: More than an amazing alliteration

Over the past year, our ‘foreign correspondent’ Sofia Pagliarin has contributed to this website through a series of interviews on themes such as the impact factor and the cultural hegemony of English in academia.

In the context of the University of Bamberg’s Sustainability Week she presented the links between the idea of sustainability to practices in contemporary academia. Though there are obvious issues ahead of us still, it is heartwarming to see scholars in other countries organizing around these common questions.

You can find Sofia’s presentation here.

Slow Science DS – 2019 edition

Last week, we concluded the 2019 edition of our doctoral course.

On Thursday, we met in Brussels at KULeuven, campus Brussel.

We started the day with a session on the topic of ‘Publish and/or perish’. The session was opened by our very own Freek Van Deynze. Freek gave us a general overview of the current state of academia in Flanders, with a special focus on the relation between the funding of the universities and publication pressure. Jon Tennant provided a passionate plea for Open Science (and against greedy publishers such as Elsevier, and related evils such as the journal impact factor). Consistent with his plea for Open Access, Jon’s presentation at our course can be found here. Next, Reine Meylaerts, vice-rector of research policy at KULeuven, talked about the societal impact of research and the complexity related to its assessment. We concluded the session with a general discussion, in which our participants shared their experiences.

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Jon Tennant

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Jon Tennant, Reine Meylaerts, and Freek Van Deynze

In the afternoon, we held a session on gender and diversity. Nellie Konijnendijk informed us about the ubiquity of implicit bias, and ways it could be addressed. The session included a practical exercise, in which the participants reflected on ways to make academia more inclusive.

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Nellie Konijnendijk

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Exercise on gender and diversity

In the evening, we organized a public debat in collaboration with Muntpunt. With Barbara Van Dyck as moderator, we shared our thoughts on the challenges posed by climate change and the role that the universities could/should play in addressing these issues. Our panel consisted of Anneleen Kenis, Chloé Verlinden, Mohamed Al Marchohi, and Tom Cox. Anneleen Kenis is an interdisciplinary geographer, with a background in political/ human ecology, sustainable development and psychology. Chloé Verlinden represented Students4Climate.  She is a Master student in Urban Studies (VUB-ULB), with a background in political sciences and anthropology. Mohamed Al Marchohi is currently working for GO! as an energy and climate policy advisor. In the past he worked for the Social-Economic Council of Flanders (SERV), he also conducted research in the field of Energy- and Environmental Economics at the University of Antwerp. Tom Cox  is a civil engineer, he is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp, where he is affiliated to the Ecosystem Management research group. He was affiliated with the recent scientists4climate movement and has also been involved in other forms of climate activism (e.g. GroeNoord). The panelists provided their perspective on the issues at hand. One of the main points under discussion was the role of academics. Mohamed stated that part of the problem is that a lot of people are still not convinced that climate change is a problem. It therefore remains an important taks for academics to inform the public. Tom doubted whether this was the central problem, and countered that facts do not necessarily lead to action. He also voiced his doubts about the role of academia. First, academics are not special, they are just ordinary citizens. Moreover, academics (according to him) are bad agents of change. On an institutional level, he observed that universities do not make change happen. The lack of radical actions taken by universities [1] is a slap in the face of climate scientists. Chloé also noted a lack of action and mobilization amongst professors, but added that this was a problem in the student population as well. According to Anneleen, the lack of action taken by the universities themselves is especially disappointing given the fact that the measures to be taken are actually quite clear. Anneleen further applauded Students4Climate for their commitment, but had reservations about the way in which Students4Climate and Youth4Climate presented climate change as a future threat, whereas the consequences of climate change are already being felt, especially in the more vulnerable regions of the world. This led to a discussion of the issue of (white) privilege in relation to climate change.

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Anneleen Kenis, Chloé Verlinden, Mohamed Al Marchohi, Tom Cox

On Friday, we met in Ghent for the session hosted by Ghent University. This day focused on action. The morning session was organized by Omar Jabary Salamanca and Siggie Vertommen, who are both involved in the slow science network (and have organised the seminal edition of this doctoral course). Omar gave a short presentation on the roots and history of slow science. Siggie talked about slow science as a feminist issue. Siggie and Omar had invited Shiri Shalmy to give a presentation about antiuniversity. After that, we analyzed the landscape of the university and reflected on a better university and ways in which it could be attained.

Action Day
Ready for action

In the afternoon, we were given action training by Vredesactie/Tractie.

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Theories of change discussed during the session with Vredesactie/Tractie

 

For us as organizers, this year’s course was a success again.

We will be back next year.

See you then!

Slow Science Network

PS [1] An open letter by academics has just been published on vrtnws. It calls for universities to do more to address climate change.

Slow Science DS & Public Debate

Tomorrow and the day after we will hold the second and third session of our doctoral school. We will keep you posted about this!

The doctoral course also includes a debate, which is open to all. In the debate, we will look at the role that the universities can and should play in addressing the challenges posed by climate change. Admission to the debate is free, but you have to register, which you can do here.

Related to the topic of the debate: a group of academics have recently written an open letter, urging the universities to do more to become committed players in the ecological and social transition.

Hoping to see you all in Brussels!

Slow Science Network

 

 

Is Ghent University stepping out of the ratrace? An interview with Jan Dumolyn about the goals, strengths, and potential pitfalls of the new personnel policy

By Valerie De Craene, Anton Froeyman, Freek Van Deynze

In 2018, the University of Ghent and the Socialist Trade Union announced a new personnel policy, calling it “stepping out of the ratrace” and “no longer wishing to participate in the ranking of people”. The press release (by the University of Ghent and the Socialist Labour Union) was picked up by many scholars and media, also internationally. Inside Higher Ed even interviewed Rik Van de Walle, rector of the Ghent University.

Slow Science in Belgium read the new policy, followed the debates, and ended up with numerous questions. What is the new policy about? Will this policy be a start of a broader and fundamental change on the way universities are organised? Will this policy lead to different types of knowledges being valued and validated by universities and funding agencies, while preventing precarity in our universities? Or is this nothing more than window dressing with minor changes, and even only for the happy few? What about the broader context in which this policy is implemented? Luckily we found Jan Dumolyn -senior lecturer at Ghent University and, as member of the Socialist Trade Union, one of the people responsible for the negotiations and implementation of the new policy- willing to answer all our questions about the goals, strengths and potential pitfalls of the new direction Ghent University seems to take.

 

Slow Science: Very briefly and concretely, what are the main characteristics of this new policy vis-à-vis the previous system?

Jan Dumolyn: The former system was completely based on so-called quantifiable measures. Not only publications (with an elaborate ranking system) were measured, but grant applications and service as well, sometimes to the point of ridicule. The terms for promotion from one level to another stay the same: five years as a tenure track lecturer (docent, maître de conferences, assistant professor); then ten years as a senior lecturer (hoofddocent, associate professor); then eight years as a professor (hoogleraar, professeur); after that, one finally becomes a full professor (hoogleraar). Now, the quantitative approach has been replaced by a more qualitative method. A commission of five persons will be created for each staff member. This commission will be consist of the head of department, the president of the ‘education commission’ of the programme in which one teaches, a close colleague who knows the field, an HR-specialist and a member of the faculty board. In the first meeting the staff member presents a plan for what she will do during the next couple of years, then there is a feedback meeting two years later and finally after five years an evaluation. The idea is that every staff member who does her job correctly and adequately (so research, teaching and service) will be promoted. If this is not the case, the promotion is delayed. There is the possibility to appeal when one does not agree with a negative decision.

 

Slow Science: How long has this policy been in the making? And why did it get introduced now? Are there any examples or templates which served as inspiration (e.g. website of Leiden manifesto suggest so)

Jan Dumolyn: As trade unionists, we have been protesting against the former system from the moment it turned out that it would be based upon a purely quantitative logic (something that we never agreed to in the first place and was imposed upon us by the faculties). This is already ten years ago now. I had not heard about the Leiden manifesto before you asked me this question. In fact, we can be proud to say we were much earlier in saying this with ACOD-UGent (the socialist trade union at the university). When I already protested against this metric fetishism ten years ago, I was mocked by almost every powerful person in the Flemish academic world. Gradually, opinions changed, and now those in power mostly agree with us.

 

Slow Science: In the new policy, there is an important role for the so called HR-committee. Is it possible that people’s research will be assessed by someone who might be unfamiliar with your field?

Jan Dumolyn: I don’t see that as a problem, on the contrary. The HR-commission should contain both specialists of the field who understand the staff member but also other people who might have a fresh look or are not implied in specific feuds or controversies within the field. The composition of the HR-commission is made up by checks and balances.

 

Slow Science: One of its members is a person from DPO (Personnel Department). Who is this person, i.e. what is their profile/expertise/background? What is her/his role?

Jan Dumolyn: Her role will be that of a trained HR-specialist, a kind of career coach. These people will be mostly trained as pyschologists I suppose. Their task is to provide general suggestions for career management.

 

Slow Science: Will one person be performing this role for the entire university, or will this be several people? Do you expect this person to, officially or unofficially, also serve as “antenna’s” to give the central university level an idea of hiring and promotion practices?

Jan Dumolyn: Our university is recruiting them at the moment. There will be a few of them. And yes, I suppose they will serve as antennas in that way.

 

Slow Science: Part of the new policy is the requirement for academics to submit a so called ‘inpassingstekst’ or integration text: a text in which they show how they fit in the department. What about external people who do not know the department that well? Won’t they be disadvantaged by the new policy?

Jan Dumolyn: I don’t see why, they should be coached in this as well by the colleagues of their department. It’s normal that when teaching and service are concerned as a newcomer you don’t know everything.

 

Slow Science: In the new policy, there is a bigger role for the academic to choose to prioritize research, teaching, and/or service. How will this be evaluated? Are there any minimum criteria? What if, for example, academics choose to not publish any articles but rather aim to make a documentary or book? Would this be considered enough? Does all research need to be innovative, or is popularizing (existing) research also considered as valuable output? What about arts? What if someone aims to write a new opera? Is this considered research output?  Services? If so, will faculties allow it? What if they don’t?

Jan Dumolyn: In principle, all this should be allowed as long as one fundamentally remains a scientist. Of course, a lecturer or professor cannot just say ‘I don’t want to write scientific publications anymore’ but changing the focus to books or focusing more on science communication is of course a very valuable option. Of course, a researcher should always continue to engage in innovative research, we cannot just be popularizers or artists, these are different professions. So let’s not take things too far. Most of us are paid by tax payers’ money.

 The quantitative approach has been replaced by a more qualitative method. The idea is that every staff member who does her job correctly and adequately (so research, teaching and service) will be promoted.

Slow Science: Related to the previous question: do faculties want to focus on and value teaching and service more? If so, what needs to change in order to make this happen? Think about academics who are often present in mainstream media (e.g. Koen Aerts – Kinderen van de collaboratie, Carl De Vos): Aside from playing an important role in bringing scientific insights to the larger audience, they only provide an indirect benefit to their departments, in the form of publicity and possibly higher student numbers. Which role does this type of service play?Will this change anything in the current relationship between research, teaching, and service?

Jan Dumolyn: I think this type of academics are exceptional when you start counting them. In practice, universities have already for a long time been happy with well-informed and eloquent researchers who appear in the mass media. In all fairness, I do not believe in academic positions without research, or mostly oriented towards service. There can be no academic teaching or service which is not based upon original research.

 

Slow Science: Do you think the FWO too can validate this type of service like the one discussed above?

Jan Dumolyn: I don’t think it should. Fundamental research is the main objective for the FWO and it should remain so. Other types of funding could be created next to it. Fundamental research is always potentially under threat so we should not give too much weight to ‘impact’ either. There should be a balance. Otherwise private companies will tighten their grip on the universities. You and me are from the humanities, but let’s not be naïve, we don’t really count in the bigger picture, when it comes to money and funding. When we say ‘service to society’ we mean something else, in practice this will mean ‘service to big corporations’.

 

Slow Science: (How) can individual professors and/or the university avoid that this new policy eventually still leads to an output focused on quantitative metrics? The discourse might have changed, but how can this be applied in practice? Especially since the incentives that lead to the use of quantitative indicators (such as the internal allocation model, the financing decree and the BOF-distribution key) are still in place.

Jan Dumolyn: Yes, this is the next step that should be taken now; this is already going in the right direction, but slowly. Some rectors support moving away from focusing on quantitative aspects in order to divide the money between the universities in Flanders. The KULeuven however is trying to block a fundamental change as it profits most from the current situation and it has the most outspoken neoliberal discourse since a long time. It is up to the colleagues in Leuven to more actively resist their university leadership in this.

Rethinking the career of PhD-students and the ‘scholarship’ system, which is de facto a labour relation, is on our agenda for the coming year.

Slow Science: To what extent is the new policy part of a larger process of change? At this moment, the (external) incentives have not changed: the Flemish financing system as well as international criteria for funding remain the same. What about those incentives that undermine the new UGent policy? Will this affect competition to other universities who do not implement a similar policy?

Jan Dumolyn: Yes, but we are only the trade union of one university, we cannot do everything at the same time and we have to start somewhere. I would urge academics to join a labour union and work in these structures instead of only writing endless blogs to complain about ‘academia’ in purely individualist terms or signing the occasional petition. Only through collective organization one can  gain strength. And that is in a union. Academics should learn that they are workers too and are not ‘above such things’ as a labour union.

Evaluators could use their position to settle scores with the person being evaluated. We would have wanted a veto right by the candidate against members of the HR-commission as well, when she would think they are biased.

Slow Science: What about the careers of PhD students and Post-Docs? Is there something in the pipeline for them as well? And what will be the effect on PhD students and Post-Docs as long as there is no specific policy implemented for them?

Jan Dumolyn: Rethinking the career of PhD-students and the ‘scholarship’ system, which is de facto a labour relation, is on our agenda for the coming year. We have also recently reformed the statute of the ‘scientific staff’ i.e. mostly postdocs financed by external funding. As to the problem of the postdocs in general, the main solution is to create a lot more positions of lecturer, so more of them have a chance.

 

Slow Science: What do you, as labour unions, foresee as potential problems within the new system?

Jan Dumolyn: The downside of not using a purely quantitative logic is that there is more room for purely subjective judgments. Evaluators could use their position to settle scores with the person being evaluated. However, due to the composition of the committee, which is supposed to be balanced. And there are also possibilities to appeal.

 

Slow Science: Are you as ACOD happy with the new policy? Are there issues you wanted to see included too? What proposed elements didn’t make the cut?

Jan Dumolyn: We pretty much succeeded in obtaining the most important aspects of what we wanted. We would have wanted a veto right by the candidate against members of the HR-commission as well, when she would think they are biased. We lost on that one in the negotiations. Now there is the possibility to protest and write a letter to the dean and the faculty council but they can then decide if they want to maintain the nomination or not.

 

Jan Dumolyn (1974) is a senior lecturer in medieval history at Ghent University, a shop steward of the ACOD (Socialist Trade Union) and a member of the Staff Negotiation Committee.

 


Read more

UGent press release: (Nl) https://www.ugent.be/nl/actueel/nieuw-loopbaanmodel-zap.htm
UGent press release: (En) https://www.ugent.be/en/news-events/ghent-university-talent-rat-race-transformation-career-evaluation-model.htm
ACOD (Socialist Trade Union) Q&A on new policy: (Nl) http://www.acod1.ugent.be/?q=node%2F1027

Interview with Rik Van de Walle in Inside Higher Ed (En): https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/01/23/ghent-university-belgium-embraces-new-approach-faculty-evaluation-less-focused#.XEiPVQo3dhI.facebook

 

What does it mean to be a researcher… 2019 Doctoral Course – Day 1

Last week, we held the first session of this year’s Inter-University Doctoral Schools Course (UGent/VUB/UAntwerpen/KULeuven) regarding the question ‘What does it mean to be a researcher in 21st century academia?’

Rather than starting from a predetermined programme and set of topics, we used open space technology (under the skilful guidance of Elvira) to allow the participants to come up with topics which they felt were relevant. Among other topics, we talked in small  groups about the tension between teaching and research, the “ivory tower”, decolonization, scientific method and objectivity, and mental health. Patricia Schor, who had kindly agreed to provide her own reflections based on the input provided by the participants, went from group to group to collect impressions. After the individual group sessions, we ended with a collective forum where the  groups informed each other about the points that had been discussed. Patricia Schor shared her impressions and thoughts.

We were very glad to see that the course had attracted a heterogeneous group of people, coming from different disciplines (both from the humanities and natural sciences) and from different backgrounds (both Belgian and international Phd-students). Because the format was based on the active participation of the attendants and because it allowed them to share their own experiences, we were able to get to know each other and create a positive group dynamic.

We are looking forward to the next sessions on april 25 and 26. We will keep you posted!

In the context of the course, we are also organizing a public debate. Those interested are more than welcome!

Doctoraatsbeleid doorgelicht

door Freek Van Deynze

De voorbije jaren had ik het geluk en, bij momenten, het ongeluk om dieper te graven in het Vlaamse doctoraatsbeleid zoals het zich de afgelopen dertig jaar ontwikkeld heeft. Het was een proces met momenten van inzicht en actie, maar evenzeer van vallen en opstaan. Vergeten waar men nu juist mee bezig was om dan later de draad opnieuw weer op te pikken en er toch een coherent, verdedigbaar geheel van te proberen maken. De ambiguïteit of het nu gaat over mijn eigen ervaringen of het ontwikkelde doctoraatsbeleid is opzettelijk. De vlieger gaat voor beiden op.

De afgelopen dertig jaar heeft de Vlaamse overheid sterk geïnvesteerd in de productie van doctoraatshouders. Deze investeringen hebben duidelijk hun effect niet gemist. Jaar na jaar behalen steeds meer mensen een doctoraatsdiploma. Door de klemtoon op het kwantitatieve aspect stijgt in Vlaanderen al drie decennia het aantal afgeleverde doctoraatsdiploma’s. Voor sommigen is de numerieke groei nog niet voldoende. Zij vergelijken Vlaanderen graag met Europese koplopers zoals Duitsland, het Verenigd Koninkrijk en enkele Scandinavische landen. Daarbij gaan zij echter soms voorbij aan de lokale context, en verliezen uit het oog dat de historisch gegroeide betekenis en waarde van een doctoraat verschilt van land tot land.

Bovendien is de laatste tien jaar deze groei voornamelijk te wijten aan het grote aantal internationale doctorandi[1]. De Vlaamse instroom stagneert. Dit hoeft niet noodzakelijk een probleem te zijn, maar biedt een kans tot reflectie, consolidatie en versteviging van kwalitatieve en inhoudelijke aspecten.

Op deze vlakken is immers nog heel wat verbetering mogelijk. Pijnpunten zijn de aansluiting met zowel de academische als niet-academische arbeidsmarkt, het statuut van bursalen, gebrekkige begeleiding, de kwaliteit van het onderzoek en onderwaardering van andere vaardigheden. Helemaal nieuw zijn deze problemen niet. Meermaals werden bepaalde aspecten ervan aan de kaak gesteld in de media, en ondernamen de overheden en universiteiten pogingen om deze zaken aan te kaarten. Toch is er nog werk aan de winkel. De volgende aanbevelingen zijn gebaseerd op een historische analyse van het beleid, de eigen werkomgeving en gesprekken met vele andere doctorandi, promotoren en beleidsmakers in een veelvoud aan instanties.

Overheid, bezint eert ge begint! En als dat niet meer lukt, nadat ge begint.

De overheid dient na te denken over de finaliteit die het wil bereiken met de investeringen in het doctoraatsbeleid. Daarbij moet verder gegaan worden dan het louter nastreven van een numerieke ouput en ook enkele inhoudelijke aspecten expliciet onder de loep genomen worden. We dienen ons niet blind te staren op het voorbeeld van de koplopers, maar zouden verder moeten  nagaan waar in eigen land de vraag naar doctoraatsgediplomeerden ligt, en in welke sectoren zij een meerwaarde kunnen leveren

Discussies over de meerwaarde van het doctoraat worden doorgaans gereduceerd tot een vergelijking tussen doctors en mastergediplomeerden. In tegenstelling tot die laatsten zouden deze vlotter aan een job geraken en meer verdienen. Dit zegt echter niks over de meerwaarde van het doctoraat vanuit het oog van de maatschappij die deze financiert, maar louter over de persoonlijke meerwaarde van het behalen van een doctoraat binnen die maatschappij. Het lijkt plausibel om ervan uit te gaan dat geschoolde onderzoekers een meerwaarde kunnen betekenen binnen allerlei sectoren, maar paradoxaal genoeg is dit net een kwestie waar bitter weinig onderzoek over bestaat. Over welke sectoren gaat het? Hoe vertaalt deze meerwaarde zich in verschillende sectoren, en is het doctoraat zoals het nu wordt opgevat wel degelijk beste manier om mensen voor te bereiden op het leveren van deze maatschappelijke bijdrage? Is de manier waarop we heden ten dage investeren in doctoraten wel degelijk de beste manier zijn om bepaalde maatschappelijke en economische doelen te verwezenlijken die wij ermee in verband brengen?

Overheid, zorg voor een duidelijk en eerlijk statuut voor doctorandi.

Wettelijk gezien zitten doctoraten tussen een studenten- en werknemersstatuut in. Dit administratief compromis à la belge brengt heel wat onduidelijkheid en nadelen met zich mee.

Het huidig statuut is voornamelijk gebaseerd op een aantal fiscale rondzendbrieven en juridische precedenten die hierrond ontstaan zijn. Het is minder duidelijk wat nu juist de rechten van doctorandi zijn, en bovendien is het niet vanzelfsprekend om deze af te dwingen.

De weinige duidelijke regels die gepaard gaan met het statuut van bursaal worden op regelmatige basis met de voeten getreden. Doctorandi vervullen meer taken ter ondersteuning van de universitaire gang van zaken dan strikt toegelaten. Dit is ook nodig, want anders heeft de universiteit het lastig om haar onderwijs en onderzoekstaken naar behoren te vervullen. Zij vervullen dus een takenpakket en functie binnen de universiteit die vergelijkbaar is met dat van een werknemer. Toch kan de universiteit, noch de promotor, strikt gezien hiërarchische controle uitoefenen. De huidige situatie is er dus een die uitgaat van goodwill van zowel de promotor als de doctorandus. Het is echter naïef om te denken dat dit om een symmetrische machtsrelatie gaat.

Doordat doctorandi tussen student en werknemer invallen is het ook niet duidelijk wie hen als groep kan vertegenwoordigen. In de praktijk blijken zij niet vertegenwoordigd te worden door studentenorganisaties als de Vlaamse Vereniging van Studenten. Vertegenwoordigers van de AAP-WP geleding binnen universitaire beleidsorganen denken voornamelijk vanuit een universitaire en facultaire logica en komen slechts moeizaam tot een overkoepelend beeld. Het zijn voornamelijk de vakorganisaties die het voortouw hebben genomen en het recht hebben geclaimd om doctorandi te vertegenwoordigen en hen te informeren over hun rechten. De meeste kennis en expertise rond het bursaalstatuut en de problemen die ermee gepaard gaan is bij hen te situeren. Zij dienen dus noodzakelijkerwijze betrokken worden bij een mogelijke herziening van het statuut.

De Vlaamse regering en volksvertegenwoordigers dienen de regie te nemen en het Dehousse-statuut, een federale erfenis van de jaren negentig, aan te passen. De toekenning van een werknemersstatuut aan doctorandi zou een goede vooruitgang betekenen en komaf maken met een aantal van de bestaande problemen. Tevens is het ook een erkenning aan de buitenwereld dat een doctoraat moet erkend worden als onderzoeks- en werkervaring en dat er hier sprake is van early career researchers of junior onderzoekers. Het argument dat doctoreren louter een opleiding is dient van de tafel geveegd te worden.

Overheden, weet dat meten niet alleen weten, maar ook vergeten is

Het aantal afgeleverde doctoraatsdiploma’s is een van de indicatoren in zowat alle financiële verdeelsleutels die Vlaanderen rijk is. Kwantitatieve indicatoren hebben zeker hun nut, maar hun aandeel binnen de financiering van de universiteiten is echter te groot geworden. Dit leidt al snel tot goal displacement, oftewel middel-doel omkering. Scoren op de indicator wordt dan het doel, eerder dan het proberen goed doen op wat die indicator zou moeten indiceren.

Het beleid kan hierdoor contradictorisch zijn. De overheid wil bijvoorbeeld dat doctorandi beter inzetbaar worden gemaakt op de arbeidsmarkt, en zet hun hoop hiervoor in op de zogenaamde doctoraatsopleidingen. Tegelijk incentivized ze de productie van doctoraten en publicaties voor de universiteiten. Voor universiteiten en promoteren loont het dus amper om tijd en geld te investeren in cursussen en opleidingen die deze directe doelen niet dienen. In deze context is het bewonderenswaardig dat de overheid gekozen heeft om het OJO-fonds (Omkadering Jonge Onderzoekers) in het leven te roepen, waarbij bij voorbaat vast ligt waar het geld in geïnvesteerd kan worden. De overheid zal dergelijke ingrepen moeten blijven toepassen waar nodig, in plaats van vast te houden aan principes van autonomie en aangestuurde competitie tussen de universiteiten. Het beleid aan de universiteiten is te belangrijk om alleen over te laten aan universiteiten en professoren.

Ook is er soms sprake van bizarre circulaire redeneringen. Zo worden doctoraatsdiploma’s opgenomen in innovatie-indicatoren. Hierdoor gaat men investeren in doctoraatsdiploma’s. Vervolgens kloppen we ons op de borst omdat Vlaanderen gestegen is op de innovatie-indicator. Maar is er werkelijk sprake van toegenomen innovatie?

Universiteiten, zorg voor een degelijke begeleiding. Ook voor de begeleiders.

Het mentaal welzijn van doctorandi kreeg al behoorlijk wat aandacht in de media. Dit ondanks het taboe dat errond heerst en soms bewust in stand wordt gehouden binnen sommige universitaire beleidskringen. Daarbij beroepen ze zich op een ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’- mentaliteit. Deze gaat echter voorbij aan een aantal zaken. Vanuit het standpunt van de overheid is het niet te verdedigen dat universiteiten als het ware gewoon belastinggeld en doctorandi naar een vogelpikbord blijven gooien in de hoop dat er wel een paar zullen blijven plakken. Bovendien is het uitermate naïef om te geloven dat het al dan niet uitvallen of lijden onder mentale problemen louter te wijten is aan het individu in kwestie. De context speelt een belangrijke rol, en niet iedereen heeft het geluk in de voor hem juiste context terecht te komen.

De problemen die er zijn hebben ook te maken met een simpele mathematische wetmatigheid. De groei van doctoraten heeft immers nooit tred gehouden met de begeleidende groep. Professoren moeten, naast hun al gevulde takenpakket, ook een steeds grotere groep doctorandi begeleiden. Al dertig jaar vragen universiteiten om meer ZAP-leden, maar waar de overheid mee over de brug kwam was nooit meer dan een druppel op de hete plaat.

Momenteel heerst er een piramide-model aan onze universiteiten. Deze zou formeel gezien geen hiërarchie zijn, maar is dat in de praktijk wel. De hiërarchie wordt geacht gelegitimeerd te worden door een verschil in onderzoeksexpertise.  Maar een goed onderzoeker is niet noodzakelijk een goede onderzoeksgroepleider. Al verwacht men dit de facto wel. Bovendien hebben de meest ervaren onderzoekers vaak ook minder tijd voor het onderzoek zelve.

Universiteiten moeten inzetten op een duurzaam HR-beleid dat de verschillende talenten van personen erkent, waardeert en laat groeien. Deze moet gelden voor doctorandi, post-docs en professoren. De overheid dient het kader te creëren waarin dit mogelijk wordt. Het lineair loopbaanmodel waar trechtergewijs meer en meer individuen afvallen dient plaats te maken voor een gedifferentieerder systeem met een stabiel middenkader. Hierbij zullen ook heilige huisjes gesloopt moeten worden, want nog steeds houden heel wat professoren vast aan het ideaal van de academicus die onderzoek, onderwijs en dienstverlening in één figuur verenigt. In de praktijk blijkt dit echter moeilijker te liggen.

Niet iedereen kan, en moet, in alles even goed zijn. Het zal wellicht nog even duren vooraleer we de ideale superacademicus in een proefbuisje kunnen kweken. Tot dan moeten we het hiermee doen.

Universiteiten, werk beter samen voor een afgestemd interuniversitair kader voor doctoral school courses

De Vlaamse overheid pleit al vijfentwintig jaar voor meer samenwerking tussen de universiteiten voor het inrichten van de doctoraatsopleidingen. De laatste tien jaar zijn al heel wat belangrijke stappen gezet. Toch is hier nog verbetering mogelijk. Momenteel hanteren universiteiten verschillende evaluatie- en terugbetalingssystemen. Dit leidt tot een nodeloze administratieve vermenigvuldiging bij het organiseren van een interuniversitaire Doctoral School Course. Een uniform kader voor interuniversitaire Doctoral School courses zorgt voor minder werk, en verhoogt de kennisuitwisseling en contacten tussen doctorandi van verschillende universiteiten.

Universiteiten en professoren, beoordeel meer dan alleen onderzoeksoutput van doctorandi

De inhoud en betekenis van de doctoraatsinput verschoof in het verleden meer en meer van een dik boek naar een bundeling van artikels. Een portfolio-aanpak zou echter beter zijn. In een dergelijk doctoraatsportfolio zouden ook andere elementen ter beoordeling kunnen ingebracht worden dan louter onderzoeksoutput, en dan nog eens onderzoeksoutput binnen een strak academisch keurslijf.

Zo zou ook wetenschapscommunicatie, breed opgevat, moeten kunnen ingebracht worden, maar ook concrete voorbeelden van andere vaardigheden die aangeleerd en versterk zijn tijdens het doctoraatstraject. Op deze manier erkennen en valoriseren we het werk, de tijd en de moeite die doctorandi steken in andere zaken dan louter het onderzoek. Dit ligt in de lijn van het huidige beleid en de verwachtingen die geuit werden in een parlementaire resolutie[2] en het is te verwachten dat een dergelijke regel- en mentaliteitswijzingen ook positieve gevolgen zal hebben voor de bredere maatschappij. Uiteraard mag dit geen verplichting worden en moet het onderzoekscomponent behouden worden, maar dienen ook andere elementen in de globale evaluatie ingebracht te worden, eventueel ter compensatie van een lagere output in wetenschappelijke artikels.

Internationale doctorandi verdienen meer dan pump ‘n’ dump

Zoals eerder vermeld is de toegenomen doctoraatsoutput de laatste tien jaar voornamelijk te wijten aan de groeiende groep internationale doctorandi. Het is een groep die veel meerwaarde genereert voor de universiteiten, zowel wat betreft het aantal afgeleverde doctoraatsdiploma’s en onderzoeksoutput, maar niet altijd als een volwaardig lid van de Vlaamse academische gemeenschap behandeld wordt. Ze zijn vaker tewerkgesteld op precaire, kortdurende contracten, genieten niet altijd van dezelfde sociale rechten en kunnen minder terugvallen op een sociaal netwerk. Velen van hen zijn ook tewerkgesteld op beurzen van het thuisland, waarvan de koopkracht in Vlaanderen niet te vergelijken is met die van lokale bursalen. Het reeds indrukwekkende obstakelparcours voor het uitbouwen van een academische carrière is voor hen vaak nog lastiger te navigeren, onder meer dankzij de ons-kent-ons mentaliteit en academische inteelt die in bepaalde departementen nog steeds welig tiert. Mensen die naar hier komen om aan een doctoraat te werken verdienen het om beter behandeld te worden dan als goedkope werkkrachten die makkelijk van de hand kunnen gedaan worden wanneer ze hun rechten opeisen of wanneer ze indruk wekken niets meer te kunnen opleveren.

Overheden en universiteiten kunnen werk maken van extra sociale en financiële ondersteuning voor deze doelgroep. Deelname aan officiële universitaire beleidsorganen moet ook mogelijk worden in andere talen dan het Nederlands, zodat ook deze groep makkelijker met eigen stem kan spreken.

Ter conclusie

De universiteiten en overheid hebben de voorbije decennia flink aan de weg getimmerd en een positieve weg ingeslagen. Meer mensen dan ooit tevoren krijgen de kans om zich gedurende een aantal jaren zich te verdiepen in een onderwerp en onderzoeksvaardigheden en ervaring op te doen. Ook komt er enige aandacht voor hun positie binnen de universiteit en de bredere maatschappij, en hoe dezen op elkaar kunnen afgestemd worden.

Het gevaar dat nu echter dreigt is dat men op de lauweren rust, er van uit gaand dat de grote problemen opgelost zijn doordat een aantal nieuwe structuren opgezet zijn en grote declaraties afgelegd zijn. Toch is er nog werk nodig om de ingeslagen weg te verankeren en te doen doorsijpelen tot op de werkvloer. Universitair beleid in het algemeen, en doctoraatsbeleid in het bijzonder is slechts af en toe een kwestie van geconcentreerde politieke aandacht en mobilisatie geweest. Nu de aandacht weer wat aan het wegebben is het aan ons om verder te hameren op de nog bestaande pijnpunten.

[1] https://www.vlaamsindicatorenboek.be/3.2.1/startende-jonge-onderzoekers

[2] http://docs.vlaamsparlement.be/pfile?id=1191378

 

Ethics Week 2018 (VUB)

The first week of December, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel organizes an ‘Ethics Week‘ with a focus on research ethics. They explicitly invite people from the Slow Science Network to participate and/or share their critical questions. The topics discussed are:

Research Without Borders? Ethics of international research co-operation (4/12)

Soldiers in the laboratory? Military and civilian research (4/12)

Medical Ethics (5/12) 

Ethics, Human and Social Sciences (6/12) 

Ethics & Animal Testing (6/12)

Ethics and Valorisation of Research (7/12)