Although science has been a formidably successful force of social and technological development in the modern era, and a main reason for the wealth and well-being of current societies compared to previous times, a fundamental distrust characterizes its current status in society. According to prevalent discourse, science is insufficiently productive and in need of stricter governance and bureaucratic management, with performance evaluation by the means of quantitative metrics as a key tool to increase efficiency. The basis of this notion appears to be a belief that the key or only purpose of science is to drive economic growth, or sustainable development in combination with economic growth. In this article, these beliefs are analyzed and deconstructed with the help of a theoretical toolbox from the classic sociology of science and recent conceptualizations of economization, democratization, and commodification of scientific knowledge and the institution of science, connecting these beliefs to broader themes of market
Reference Hallonsten, Olof. “Stop evaluating science: A historical-sociological argument.” Social Science Information (2021): 0539018421992204. DOI: 10.1177/0539018421992204
Olof Hallonsten Associate Professor at the School of Economics and Management & CIRCLE Lund University
Olaf thank you very much for accepting this invitation to have a coffee break with me, how are you doing?
Good thank you I look forward, same here.
I’m really enjoying my black coffee today, which coffee are you having?
I’m having one of those uh coffee brands that you get in Swedish universities that are not really good, but the mug is very nice, and the paper is interesting so that will compensate I’m sure.
Olof I. want to talk with you today about the very interesting paper you wrote named “stop evaluating science a historical-sociological argument”, could you please tell me what the paper was about?
yeah so the paper is delivered deliberately provocative in its title stop evaluating science, so it is about the current situation for science generally that it’s constantly evaluated in terms of its performance and contributions to society, but in ways that do not really capture the spirit of science or what science is all about, would be my argument so this is counterproductive and it doesn’t make justice to the ways that science really contributes to society.
And I understand that one of the most remarkable things of the paper is the way you suggest to rethink science, so what would you say about that?
so the current impression that I have and that I think many would share with me is that there are like there are two assumptions that guide this whole performance evaluation hysteria and the first one is that science is all would be all about innovation and economic growth and the other one is that it’s somehow underperforming in this regard, but if we look around we see that science is simply very successful its contributions to the development of society during modernity improvement of life in almost all respects it’s just astonishing, so it’s a little weird that this distrust in its ability to contribute is so seemingly strong and so reflected in these performance evaluations and this is really sort of at the core of the of the paper, although I would say it’s not really a radical view or or a radical way of reevaluating what what science is all about it’s it’s it’s basic stuff it’s rather the past two or three decades of evaluation hysteria and distrust towards scientific knowledge that’s the the oddity in historical comparison.
I would say and based on this notion then what would you say are the key findings of your paper?
So the reason that I wrote the paper was that I was puzzled by this fact that there is such a distrust from policy makers and also from the general public, we can see it in many vulgar forms now of course with alternative facts and post-truth and all that, but also from policy makers that somehow there is this idea that universities are not performing as expected or as they should and since I already told you on answering the previous question science is so successful so it shouldn’t be like this, so I asked myself how can it be that there is this strong distrust in in science policy making and being partly a historian of science or at least trained partly as historian of science, I looked back and I re-read classics in that field and and and tried to establish sort of a historical explanation for why this is the case and I found developments in society in general and in the economy from the 60s and 70s and on that are really good to keep in mind when trying to explain these things for example the economisation of society that what others have called market fundamentalism that everything in society is subject to markets transactions with old marxist term it would be called commodification that everything should be possible to buy and sell on a market and so on associated with this is also the the idea that we we should have immediate rewards all the time that the long-term and hard work is not rewarded, really but it’s the instant payoff and this creates a sort of an uneasiness and a distrust in everything that’s hidden or that works long term and so on. So that’s one thing, the other thing is of course the democratization of knowledge really, back in the days professors and other similar authorities were really on on on a high level uh above the sort of the the general population and and couldn’t be questioned to that extent and and from the 60s and on there have of course been healthy and very revitalizing movements in society that have questioned old authorities and led to a far more democratic and and equal society and that’s good of course that’s good, but it has as a side effect this distrust in knowledge and the authority of knowledge that among other things then a lead to a kind of an institutionalized distrust among policymakers and the public towards science and the institutions of science such as the university.
Thank you for sharing those insights now I want you to tell us a little bit about your personal experience or motivation when writing this paper.
Yeah it’s an interesting one because I mean I’ve been a postdoctoral researcher for for 12 years now and I’ve written quite a couple of quite a few articles and usually it’s really long term hard work you know and you need to to think about it for several years and write and rewrite and then submit and reject and you know you have colleagues reading it and criticizing and sometimes you just forget about it and you get fed up and so on so it’s really a tiresome process with this one it was almost like I’ve been thinking about this for like 10 years or even more these ideas but I never got myself to put it down on paper, so once when I got this invitation to be part of CIRCLE I thought okay so what am I going to do here I need to show productivity, ironically I needed to show productivity right from the start and I just sat down and contemplated this and then once I sort of got this almost like a eureka moment and I wrote it down I presented it here at CIRCLE at the seminar and got really good feedback submitted it to a journal and they just accepted it right away, so it was like unbelievable how this could sort of and then I also questioned it I thought oh no I made some mistakes here or there or this went way too fast but I’m really I’m really happy about it that I know it’s a little bit self-pride here but I can’t resist saying that this is one of those once in a lifetime moments, where sort of from idea to article and to publication it just went smoothly like.
That’s a great experience, thank you for sharing I’m sure people are very happy to know about this eureka moment of yours, finally I want to to ask you about the the policy implications that were triggered or that you think were important after the paper?
yeah so reading the title it says stop evaluating science and that of course is a misinterpretation, it’s deliberately provocative to say stop evaluating science I’m not advocating that we should stop that altogether because some performance evaluation is necessary for resource priorities and and so on uh benchmarking of course what this is is more like a plea for sanity to hunker down a little bit to shift over the burden of responsibility really, so that currently my experience is that policy makers just take as a fact that science is not productive enough and needs to be evaluated and the burden of proof lies on us the scientists to prove that we’re productive but I think in light of what I have said about science being so enormously successful and productive historically and currently as well I think the burden of proof should be shifted over to those who claim that it’s not successful or that it’s not productive enough so that I would say is the main policy implication from the paper great.
Thanks for that thank you for for sharing those great insights about this very very interesting paper and I wish you all the best for your future research and hope to see you again with a better coffee.
Thank you very much. Thank you for watching, if you’re interested in more details about this academic publication you can find here the link below find us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube or listen to our podcast on Spotify see you next time bye.