What’s the point of scholarly academies?

As universities have turned to partisan lobbying and self-promotion, new head of Allea thinks ancient organisations now fill a crucial space in public debate

September 15, 2018
Graduation

From Isaac Newton’s Royal Society to Galileo Galilei’s Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Europe is dotted with academies, some of the oldest and most significant institutions in the history of the humanities and natural sciences.

But in 2018, what can they do that universities cannot?

Antonio Loprieno, the new head of All European Academies (Allea), which brings together 57 such institutions, thinks this is a question that needs an answer.

“If you asked me this question three years ago, when I was president of the Swiss Rectors’ Conference, I would have told you: nothing,” he told Times Higher Education at Allea’s headquarters in the heart of Berlin.

Professor Loprieno has headed up almost every conceivable kind of academic institution, including the University of Basel as president from 2006 to 2015, the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, and the Austrian Science Board, which advises the government.

He is also a professor of the history of institutions, and made his career as an Egyptologist – so is perhaps uniquely placed to understand how ancient organisations can stand the test of time.

“The only difference between ancient Egyptian society, and modern challenges of the academic world, is that all ancient Egyptians are dead,” he commented.

Although once sceptical of academies, he now sees them as fulfilling a crucial role in the academic world – one that universities have vacated.

Universities “are very much concerned with their own profiling and positioning”, he said – a shift driven heavily by the emergence of rankings. They “have changed over the past 20 years from a culture of cooperation to a culture of competition”, he added.

This has made them far more visible in the eyes of the public. But they now lobby incessantly in their own narrow interests, Professor Loprieno argued.

Academies, on the other hand, are much freer from the need to chase immediate funding, and can act as more of an honest broker in public debate, he said. Academies constitute “a free association of scholars and scientists who choose to be together and express their views more or less regardless of personal advantages – not because they expect a grant”.

What does this mean in practice? As Professor Loprieno sees it, while universities will always lobby politicians for more research money, academies can take a step back and point out, for example, that the main problem with research lies not in a lack of money, but something else such as incentive and promotion structures.

“It’s easier to make this statement as president of an academy body than as president of a university,” he said. University presidents “know that it’s not all about money”.

He feels far freer to speak his mind now than when he led a university. “I delude myself that I tried not to lie too much as president of the University of Basel,” he joked.

Academies can also argue for different research priorities from universities, he pointed out. As if by “magic”, when universities create their own research strategies, “they all focus on medical sciences and life sciences”, he said. But their motivation is often financial, as they want to host subjects with strong economic links, he said.

On the contrary, academies are better placed to make the case for the less lucrative humanities and social sciences, he argued, and do not need to generate corporate research funding, meaning that they can be more objective about what type of research is needed to help society. One of the key roles of academies is “thinking about the societal consequences of new knowledge”, Professor Loprieno added.

His main priority as Allea president – he took up the position officially in May – is working on the “interface between science and society at large”. (Allea has already convened an international group of academics to look at whether the public still trust expertise.)

Professor Loprieno sees the current crisis of trust not as a wholesale rejection of science by the public – there are few people who do not believe in, say, the structure of the cell – but more as a reaction against “the hegemonic role of science in determining political choices”.

The 200-year supremacy of Enlightenment ideas is now “under pressure” from online media, he argued; the mass digital dissemination of emotionally charged messages leaves no space for alternative opinions and reasoned debate.

Academies need to “defend under all circumstances the primary role of science leading our social and political discourse”, Professor Loprieno said. But due to their origins as forums for the scientific elite, they have work to do to connect with the public. “Historically, in the DNA of academies, there is a kind of neglect of the public mission,” he warned.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

A very enlightening article: makes one feels less despondent about the demise of universities as holders of academic rigour and pedagogic leadership!

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