Democratic Scholarship?

By Edwin van Meerkerk


It’s no joke: starting April 1st, the Dutch are asked to suggest topics for
scientific and scholarly research via a national website, launched by a coalition of the
national Confederation of Industry and Employers VNO-NCW, the Association of Universities
in the Netherlands
the Royal Academy of Sciences, and the national research council
NWO. According to its website, the
Science Agenda ‘consolidates the themes that science
will focus on in the coming years.’

Under the
guise of a democratising measure, the autonomy of academia is being curtailed.
When the overarching science policy of which this agenda is part was launched
several months ago, newspapers received dozens of letters to the editor by scholars denouncing the
measures as inappropriate and threatening to the quality of Dutch research.
While it is too late to stop the agenda, the launching of the crowdsourcing
website helps us to understand what is really happening.

In all
western nations, the arts and sciences have been treated as related domains
throughout the long nineteenth century. Even though the gap has widened since
World War II, their position vis a vis politics and government remains largely
the same. Yet, while in the arts this relationship has been defined in clear
frames, known in Britain as the ‘Arm’s Lenght Principle’, there is no official
position regarding the influence of politics on the academic agenda. Still,
what is happening to universities today, only mirrors what has happend to the
arts over the pas few decades.

Dutch prime minister Johan Rudolf Thorbecke famously stated that “De regering
is geen oordeelaar van wetenschap en kunst” – the government does not judge
science or art. This phrase, generally referred to as the Thorbecke Adage, has
been used to prevent the government from making artistic decisions, while at
the same time legitimising the construction of a large bureaucratic apparatus
aimed at indirect control over the arts. With the Science Agenda, politics is
looking for the same kind of back door into academia.

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