I was recently accused of doing “partisan” science by the leader of a large right-wing Swiss political party, so this is going to be a few thoughts about academia, having open political positions and Switzerland. Grab a cuppa.

First published in December 2020.

One of the main reasons I am on Twitter (beyond connecting with and learning from amazing people) is to be able to be a whole person: with a job and new knowledge to share, with a life and experiences, with political opinions to debate.

This is not always easy.

Women and/or climate scientists in particular have been the target of absolutely vicious attacks for being outspoken. I have luckily been spared that, with a few exceptions.

Even more difficult, there is a view that scientists should be above the fray: impartial observers who only communicate as technocrats through obscure papers or backroom discussions with decision-makers – not openly and frankly as citizens who are also researchers.

I have written about this huge problem before, so I won’t dwell on it in here.

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Suffice to say that my proposed solution is a radical departure from that of the impersonal and apolitical technocrat: “I believe the best antidote to these massive machines of disinformation, which are still at work and will continue to wreak havoc all around us, is to get out there and be personal, passionate, insistent voices for change. We can have integrity and activism at the same time: indeed, how can we be true to the implications of our scientific findings if we do not?

But this is not always easy.

Even in countries with more (cough) combative political cultures than Switzerland, like the UK or US, scientists and university lecturers are usually hesitant to take openly confrontational positions in politics or with politicians.

There is an exception, however: academics who are (mostly) aligned with positions and policies of power are repeatedly asked on television, given newspaper columns and interviewed on the radio. But, you see, they are considered neutral technocrats. More on that later.

Back in 2016, when I started tweeting about Brexit and directly naming the political party and politicians responsible for Brexit, Windrush, and austerity, I felt distinctly lonely. My impression was that my colleagues were possibly sympathetic, but certainly quiet.

Many in the UK and the US are now much more outspoken, but that change in culture owes everything to the cartoonish levels of political malfeasance in both governments (on climate change, Covid, economic and social policy...) rather than academics actually wanting to join the fray. All this to say that I am used to being more outspoken than my colleagues, but that I expect the trend towards outspokenness to continue.

Back to Switzerland, where the culture is different. For one, the political culture has a tradition of coalition and consensus. There is (in theory) less open conflict, more slow progress in seeking common ground. In theory, I approve of this political system (I was raised in it, after all). In practice, I am no longer used to it, and am now more comfortable with the all-out brawl of UK and US politics.

So that’s a long roundabout way of saying I am sorry for calling this specific politician names (I’ll apologise directly as well). But the constant pressure to avoid open conflict and slowly seek common ground acts as yet another layer muffling Swiss academia.

It has also led to the Swiss Parliament adopting a new climate law which is partial progress but completely out of phase with physical (and economic) reality and the urgency required by the Paris Agreement’s goals. To avoid disaster, somehow this slow democracy has to be speeded up. And speeding up requires academic outspokenness, I don’t think there is any doubt there.

Another key difference in Switzerland is the role of the universities as public institutions. As a professor here, I am officially a civil servant. In any case, as an academic, I consider my role to be one of public utility. As Adam Smith put it, I am one of “those who are called philosophers, or men of speculation, whose trade it is not to do any thing, but to observe every thing.” My job is to follow my curiosity in the public interest. SO LUCKY.

But in Switzerland, this public role of universities and academics is used to police and control academics in their public pronouncements (and possibly topics of research? I haven’t experienced this directly yet) to an extent way beyond what exists in either the US or the UK.

I knew this before I moved here: I have been told multiple times by colleagues that they cannot sign a petition or statement because they are afraid they will be attacked as political, that they are not allowed to hold public positions BECAUSE of their role as public academics. Obviously, this is unacceptable. It is completely at odds with the most basic tenets of academic freedom, and indeed many Swiss academics do take positions of conscience and make statements based on their expertise. But the fear remains.

Indeed, since I have been here, I have noticed that people who disagree with me don’t just disagree, they tell me that my university position should prevent me from speaking out. That because I am a public servant, I should just write my papers, teach and shut up.

They name my university (as did this politician) in their responses, and threaten reduction of support to universities (the threat implied: “Don’t support degrowth if you want to keep university funds”). And I know my university is listening and worried about this exchange.

Of course this kind of pressure has an intimidating and silencing effect on academics, many of whom have less seniority and support than I do. As I write this, I am afraid for myself, for my students and colleagues: will my outspokenness harm my job? Will it harm them?

Imagine as well the effect of this kind of pressure on anyone who is critical of Switzerland itself and/or its main industries, including the legacies of slavery and colonisation in the financial sector, to give just one example.

It took Black Lives Matter for academics to feel confident to publicly expose some of this past. On their own, without public support, would they have dared to speak out?

So yes, I am afraid. But here is another thing. I am also determined. You see, I have a family history here. There have been many instances of science vs politics in the last 100 years that have ended really, really badly for both scientists and society, and several of them affected my family.

My father fled Nazi Germany as a child, and ended up working with the great Enrico Fermi: a Jewish-Italian physicist, who was also a refugee. It is well known that the fascist insistence on rooting out both Jewish people and Jewish science was a great boon to US and other academia. “Jewish” physics and mathematics was considered heretic and suspect partly because of anti-Semitism, but also because of the association between Jewish intelligentsia and socialism. In the US, many of the Jewish refugees were later attacked by McCarthy as part of his anti-communist and anti-socialist witch hunts. One of them was my father.

My father was never a card-carrying communist, as they called them back then, but he was always a socialist sympathizer and an anti-racist. And he could never, ever, stand bullies. At Berkeley he didn’t sign the infamous oath, and took a position at another university. A few years later, he was suddenly denied access to the national lab where his experiment was located. In the subsequent process of getting his access back (long story, other time), he learned that the main “fact” the government relied upon to refuse his security access was that he had once taken a differential geometry class with openly communist, and also amazing person and mathematician, Dirk Struik at MIT. Imagine that: “communist” differential geometry. I later met Dirk Struik at his 100th birthday. (Another story, another time.)

This persecution was certainly a factor when my parents accepted the offer of CERN to leave the US and never go back. My mother became an evolutionary biologist. She told us of the persecution of biologists in Soviet Russia, under Lysenkoism and the horror of scientists forced either to falsify their results and knowledge, or face the “psychiatric” wards and gulag. So I grew up with the absolute conviction that scientists should stand publicly for their science AND their right to hold political views. This is not something I will ever give up.

So, back to Friday’s exchange (which happened rather unfairly before my first cup of coffee).

This prominent Swiss right-wing politician, second in command of a major national party, refused to consider my arguments because the first word in my Twitter profile is “ecosocialist.” And that must taint any knowledge I have, any paper I write: everything associated with me is now “partisan.” A bit like Dirk Struik’s communist differential geometry, over 50 years ago.

1. Almost no one is apolitical. Not if they are alive and care, that is. And we should all want our academics to be alive (thank you) and care. As we know from critical social sciences, however, honesty does not come from silencing political positions. Quite the contrary: the more open they are, the more honesty and transparency there is.

2. Being pro-capitalism, pro-growth, pro-power, pro-status quo is NOT an apolitical position. Far from it. But it is often interpreted that way. Our Swiss politician friend has “capitalist” in his Twitter profile – that makes him honest, but it does not make him apolitical. It does not make his beliefs and interpretations that growth solves all, or is responsible for good things robust scientifically. These beliefs must be debated and tested, otherwise they are just that, beliefs. Similarly, too many academics, who pass themselves off as apolitical technocrats, are in fact very political: just on the side of power and status quo. I for one am super tired of being pro-power being passed off as being neutral.

Another side point here. Sorry. Let’s call it 2.b.

2b. This same politician has “liberal humanist” in his bio. But he and his followers also feel comfortable insisting I should write (or learn lol) French. French is one of my native languages, but it is also rusty, and also not the language of academics or my followers. Twitter comes with this handy ‘translate’ button I use all the frikkin time as well. And Switzerland is a tiny country with four official languages. Our general rule is “each in their own language”except when it comes to teaching wayward academics their place, apparently. I have heard of colleagues who are not Swiss nationals (I am) being told they cannot hold opinions because they are not citizens.

So, just a recap. Being pro-capitalism is not being apolitical, and being a nationalist, including in language terms, is definitely, definitely not a tenet of “liberal humanism.” On to point 3.

3. There is an assumption out there that if we hold political views, it will taint our science results. But in my experience, it is often the contrary. In my case, my political views (that people and planet should co-exist in health and equity, thank you very much) certainly shape my research questions: How much resources are necessary to live well? How are they distributed? If it is possible to live well while having much less environmental impacts, what is it in our economies which is holding us back? But I am not someone who goes out seeking trouble. Despite appearances, I am not brave or revolutionary. However, my findings are.

My results, that economic growth cannot account for life expectancy improvements, that equitable well-being does not have to cost the earth: those are radical. But they are only radical because we have been dominated by growth-based economics for so long: it has made us blind to observable reality and alternative possibilities.

My point here is that the results are not the problem. They are based on statistics and energy modelling. The results are not partisan: they reflect observable reality. What is partisan, the original crime of my research, is asking those questions. Because the questions themselves are heretic: they question our state ideology of growth-based capitalism. And heretics get attacked.🔷

Professor Julia K. Steinberger, Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Lausanne. She studies the relationships between the use of resources and performance of societies.


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🗳️ Philippe Nantermod

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 1 December 2020 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Wikimedia/Robertb1986. - The Géopolis building on the campus of the University of Lausanne. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)