“What’s in it for me?” (about money, academia and ethics)

What’s in it for me?“- this is a question I would have never expected to hear in the academic world of Humanities, but unfortunately it’s the one I am hearing more and more often (in my country at least). And, what’s even more worryingly is the fact that I hear it from top young (as in post PhD, but under 40 years) researchers, the ones who had the chance of improving their education abroad, have decided to stay and study here, but now, for some reasons, are viewing (turning) the academic profession in a source of income type of job. More to the point, the discussions involving exchanging ideas have been replaced by talks about designing a Project that will get a lot of money, passing on the knowledge (to students or the society) is dismissed in favour of publishing in ISI journals (as this is scored while the other activities are not etc.). What we are witnessing now, or I am at least (as it seems that there are not too many people worried) is a quantification of research and science into money- one will get involved just in research projects that can get money. However, Money are usually given by institutions who are following to some degree the interests of policy-makers or are in tune with the “agreed” ways of doing things, therefore the critical thinking or critical voices are slowly starting to disappear. I do not intend to generalise (I do not claim of course that all researchers commit to this model), but there is definitely a trend in there. Also, I do not intend to imply that money are unimportant, or that one should follow the example of their predecessors, freezing or starving in a basement; i am not preaching the ideal of a wanderer beggar scientist,  au contraire- one needs to have a decent life. Even so, what will happen with our disciplines if the choice of our topics and activities will be just money oriented? What will happen when the dominant paradigm shall be just the pragmatic perspective?

I am not usually in favour of an apocalyptic discourse, but just in the past week I have heard 3 different variations of the same question coming from bright people whom I would have never expected saying that: What’s in it for me? Are there gonna be any money in the x workshop? Are there gonna be any activity points coming from y activity? No? Than I am afraid I will have to pass.

After all, why do I bother with this at all? Because what’s happening is not limited to a personal decision, but has a tremendous influence on what is happening in the contemporary society (and with the public’s perception of our disciplines too). And I’ll take the most recent example, the case of Rosia Montana. In short, for the non-Romanian readers, this is a good overview of what’s happening there (a mining project that would contribute to the destruction of unique heritage) : http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/sep/17/romanians-mobilise-gold-mine. According to a recent report written by specialists from the University of Oxford and University of Leicester, UK (the text of the report in English can be found here: http://totb.ro/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Rosia_Montana_MD.swf), Rosia Montana is a site unique in the whole world due to its cultural landscape. Therefore, in the context of imminent threats to this site’s integrity, one would have expected strong reactions from the academic community. What happened however was far from this: the Romanian  Academy had an official public position, the Order of the Romanian Architects, ICOMOS Romania and some other Institutions too, but there was almost no reaction coming from most of the disciplines in the Humanities or Social Sciences field (the ones that would have been expected to get involved the most).

What is even sadder is that there are only a handful of archaeologist who took active public positions against the destruction of cultural heritage- the very essence of our discipline and our moral duty (here are 2 excellent positions on this topic, of one of those few who came forward, the archaeologist Alexandru Dragoman: http://www.privesc.eu/Arhiva/18548/Conferinta-de-presa-cu-tema–Exploatarea-miniera—un-act-de-vandalism-cultural–despre-studiul-expertilor-britanici-asupra-patrimoniului-de-la-Rosia-, min. 28:00,

and https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=j-R_CH9Pnww#t=1020, min. 0:40:00; in short, for the non-Romanian readers, his arguments are that the distruction of heritage in this case is a sign of symbolic violence, part of a colonialistic policy, one that manipulates the past and constructs rhetorics designed for economic interests; in the same time, he says that even though the “plurality of opinions” in the academic community has been an excuse invoked to dismiss those voices against the mining project, it is not a valid one, as a plurality of opinions doesn’t mean that they are all equally relevant or valuable; not at last, he is saying that destruction of heritage has an important consequence in the destruction of  the contemporary community living there, breaking their ties and changing their identity).

Sergiu Nistor, the president of ICOMOS Romania said at some point that the statues of Buddha from Bamyan (Afghanistan) have been dynamited just a few months before similar political  measures took place. In other words, attack on cultural heritage is nothing but an attack on cultural identity and memory, that will just preface stronger measures that will affect our lives. It might be a symbolic abuse, but an abuse nonetheless, one bound to repeat in a stronger version sooner or later. If we, as a scientific community, witness this with no reaction, we are ethically responsible for the outcomes, as this is a betrayal of our own discipline- one designed to provide a reflexive, critical look on the things that our society is undergoing and to protect the memory of past times for the ones to come.

Why this lack of reaction from most part of the Humanities community? Because going public for such a topic doesn’t get you points or money (even more- some of those people who did say something got fired and lost money as a consequence). In the same time, framing your professional activity in terms of money leaves outside one fundamental notion- “public responsibility“. Due to such personal choices, we are witnessing the current situation- the Humanities are slowly disappearing from the school curriculum, monuments and sites are destroyed, abuses take place and there is no coherent strong critical voice coming from the academics whose first and foremost job is to do exactly so (see for example the latest number from Archaeological Dialogues, Can an archaeologist be a public intellectual?: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8934159&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S1380203813000032).

I have written before on this blog (and some other friends too) about the threats that Humanities are undergoing in the contemporary world. But, as long as the question “What’s in it for me?” will continue to spread and become the dominant voice, there will be no greater danger to the peril of the Humanities than the scientists themselves. I am afraid that we have even surpassed the times of the quote: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’. By abandoning the love for our discipline,  and the moral duty to our society, we are actively giving a hand to those who are attacking our discipline (and who commit abuses in our society).

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