The year 2020 has come to an end. It has been an incredibly harsh year, the world is not only facing a once-a-century pandemic, but also a collapsing global economy, an increasing number of armed conflicts, political instability, and many popular protest movements in different parts of the world.
Pandemic enforced global lockdown has however some unintended positive side effects. One of them is that many home-confined academics have become more active than before in participating in public debates by writing opinion pieces and blogs, increasing their media appearances and using social media to voice their views, and regularly contributing to podcasts and vlogcasts.
Greater research-policy interface
For some time, there has been an increasing societal expectation of a greater research-policy interface. While taxpayers demanding to get a certain direct return for the money they are paying to academic institutions, university administrations are also encouraging their professors and researcher to actively take part in the public discourse and policy dialogues to fulfil their ‘contributions to society’ objectives.
Despite all these, there is no such official incentive to do this as to get the promotions and tenures, academics are invariably judged by their classroom teaching and publications in research journals, not for their contributions to the policy community or participation in public discourse.
In the absence of any direct benefit from the workplace, some academics do engage with the policy community as it helps to raise additional research funding and get consultancy assignments from the government, nongovernment and inter-government agencies.
These implicit incentives have helped somewhat to increase the involvement of academics in policy-making platforms in areas like development, environment, education, climate change, migration, public health, and gender, etc. The year 2020 has surely witnessed an upsurge in this trend.
Reluctance to join political debates
While the hesitation to participate in policy debates has been melting gradually, academics are still reluctant to join the political debates. Unless an academic has political ambition, the disincentives are too many for her or him to enter the political-debate minefield.
Participation in the political debate is not the academic merit of a researcher or a professor in the eyes of the employer. Rather, those academics who openly express their views on politics are often seen as intellectual lightweights by their peers and as troublemakers by their superiors.
Established profiling of an academic lead to this unfortunate conclusion as they are expected to behave in a certain manner, and maintaining a façade of intellectual neutrality is a very important trait in that. Taking part in political debate not only gets construed as being politically partisan but also it opens up these opinionated academics to criticism, abuse, and even threats from the supporters of the opposite political spectrum.
While ruling establishments are generally nonchalant over what gets published as ‘scientific’ publications, but they can be very vindictive if academics express their critical opinions by writing opinion pieces or giving media interviews, or using social media platforms.
Academic institutions, though formally encourage their employees to participate in public debates they lack resources as well as willingness to protect politically opinionated professors and researchers from motivated criticisms and retributions.
Silence in the name of academic neutrality
Remaining silent in the name of academic neutrality is probably fine as long as the politics and politicians are adhering to established norms of governance and respecting constitutional proprieties, but not when ethno-nationalist populists are on the rampage and polarising the societies and countries to capture or remain in power.
Those are wrong who expect universities to be ‘free from politics’ and only become ‘sites of learning’ when the country is going through a political metamorphosis. Is it acceptable for a political scientist to remain silent in the name of academic neutrality while the political establishment is openly and systematically destroying the basic principles of liberty, equality, and justice in a country?
Or, for a historian to keep quiet when a political group is manufacturing history not based on historical evidence but for its narrow divisive politics? Or, for a scientist to look the other way when the government is actively undermining scientific inquiry and forcing the people to accept national and sectarian myths as science?
Or, is it OK for a professor of medicine to be tongue-tied when a ruling dispensation openly promotes ‘voodoo’ medicines while belittling the contributions of medical science and its breakthroughs.
Political discourse is too important to be left to a group that makes a profit out of it. While in many countries media is not free and independent, the political debates and discussions are limited to politicians and professionally biased political commentators.
Thus, society needs its academics to take part in political discussion and education, using whatever platforms available to them to be able to present an independent as well as impassive analysis of it.
If the politics of a country goes seriously wrong, all other contributions academics are making or hoping to make by maintaining so-called academic neutrality will become useless.
Thus, even if it is time-consuming and perilous, academics should rather respect their moral and professional conscience and actively contribute to the political debate of the country.
Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.