Although many believe there is a disconnect between academics and wider society, the two sides are not diametrically opposed, and a strong relationship between scholarly research and policymaking circles can help our “suffering” democracies.
That is the view of Axelle Lemaire, the French minister of state for digital affairs, who believes that researchers can work in conjunction with politicians to help make evidence-based policy that leads to improvements in society.
Ms Lemaire made the comments in an interview with Times Higher Education about how digital innovation can enhance the higher education sector. She was a key architect and advocate of France’s Digital Republic Bill, which came into law in October 2016. Among its key aims were bolstering the data economy and making government actions more transparent through the release of national data such as social security information or demographic statistics.
Academics have expressed their gratitude for the bill, she said, because it allows them to conduct research with previously inaccessible data.
“Many researchers tell me that it was good to put them in the light, to stress how important their role is, to bring human progress by using technologies,” she said. “What are the technologies for? What is research for? It’s to improve [and build a better world].
“That can happen only if we trust the academics, the researchers. One of the reasons our democracies are suffering at the moment is because we’ve broken the links between researchers and politicians.”
With some of the “irrationalities” infiltrating politics at the moment, she added, research can “bring in objectivity”.
“In my ministerial experience, I realised that politicians do not foster dialogue with researchers. We know what research can bring, [so] I think governments should work closer with researchers,” she said.
“As politicians, we create policies that are not always based on facts [and] checked by academics and researchers. We shouldn’t have one administrative silo taking decisions on one side, and researchers researching on the other. The [French] government decided to open public data with the objective of providing researchers with the resources they need for their work.”
It is “extremely paradoxical”, Ms Lemaire continued, that we live in a “post-truth reality” when we have more access than “ever before in history” to technology that can help to verify information and inform government thinking on how to improve societies through policy.
“We can have access to information and use the tools – big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning – to make use of these facts and information for the benefit of all,” she added.
Her comments were supported by Thierry Mandon, secretary of state for higher education, who said that researchers were “particularly keen” on exploring new avenues opened up by the bill.
“For French public research, it means nothing less than releasing the potential of big data for scientific use,” he told THE.
Mr Mandon said that opening universities to the digital world is “absolutely mandatory if we want to foster innovation in our higher education institutions”.
“In France, the link between the digital world and higher education is mostly perceived through what it can bring to the learning experience, whether we talk about the tools or the processes,” he said. “However, when we encourage HEIs to invest in their digital transformation, it is not, and must not be, restricted to the pedagogical aspects.”
Some universities, he added, still considered digital technology to be a “support tool” and viewed “innovation as a risk and a cost” rather than an investment. The French government has been concentrating its efforts on providing help to institutions to “accelerate their digital transformation”.
“Digital technology is a lever of global transformation [for higher education] that involves pedagogy, services and research,” he said. “[However,] a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model does not exist. Each higher education institution has to build its specific digital transformation strategy [based on its] own DNA – defined by its population requirements, its social and economic environment, its internal skills.”
Ms Lemaire also spoke of how Brexit might affect Franco-British academic relationships. Noting that many in the French sector were “very depressed” by the situation, she expressed her hope that the two countries would be able to collaborate through digital means.
“We need to keep in sight the values that lie behind the academic research and the aim for education for all,” she said. “That’s what I’ve tried to put into place with the bill, by arming researchers with the tools that they need to research in an open environment.”
With the bill’s “open access provision”, which gives researchers the right to share their research freely, academics should be able to take full advantage of “living in an open international world”.
Addressing the UK’s position in the European research area, Ms Lemaire said that the first challenge facing the UK would be financial because of Britain’s long-standing success in securing European Union research funding. Between 2007 and 2013, she noted, the UK received €8.8 billion (£7.5 billion) for direct EU funding for research, development and innovation activities, while contributing €5.4 billion.
“I think they’re present in over 40 per cent of [European] research and development programmes. What amount is [going to be] put on the table by the UK in maintaining that level of funding? Will the British government and people be ready to make that net contribution to support the sector, when there are also promises of lowering [corporation] taxes?” she asked. “That will be a political choice.
“As far as I’m concerned, I will do my very best to foster the collaboration and cooperation between the two countries.”