After Tallinn: universities, politics, and the citizen

With the Tallinn Call for Action, the Estonian Presidency signaled clearly the importance of research for the future of Europe.

One theme pervades the declaration’s three priorities: the need to improve the way we communicate science, build trust between citizens, politicians and researchers, and understand the potential – and the limits – of science. How could we object?

In fact, the declaration is carefully worded and avoids simplistic assumptions about the nexus of politics, citizens and research. This is important for our universities, where research, teaching, and citizenship come together. It is critical that that universities are preserved and strengthened as spaces where arguments can be freely developed, and where questions can be asked – and solutions found – that go against the grain.

In many European countries pressure is mounting for universities to do research on topics that interest governments and politicians. To be sure, universities are an intrinsic part of civil society, they have a huge role in shaping it. Universities are inspired and driven by social needs and discourses; but they also calibrate this against what knowledge exists, and what research questions need to be asked. If such calibration did not exist, researchers in the US – to pick one example – might currently be driven towards research questions that deny the very foundation of science. And in European history, universities have denied their own missions precisely at times when they unquestioningly served the agenda of governments that proclaimed themselves to be at one with the people, denying alternative views.

A foundation of democracy is disagreement and argument, and how we negotiate between these.  Universities play a critical role in providing knowledge to researchers, students, and citizens, but universities must also teach how to argue, respect others, and disagree. At a time of increasingly emotive popular assertions of what constitutes the truth, this teaching function of universities is all the more important. If the Lamy Report envisions a virtuous circle of co-creation between citizens and researchers, this cannot compromise the ability of academic communities to engage critically with political priorities and social trends. And this raises an important question: in any process of co-creation, what if researchers disagree with citizens’ priorities, on empirical grounds?

This is why the Tallinn Call for Action gets it absolutely right. We need to engage, we need to understand each other better, and we need to show better how what we do matters to society. But there is an important dialectic, that is, a relationship of tension, between citizens, universities and politicians, that must be sustained. If this dialectic were ever overcome, it would harm not only universities – it would harm our countries, and the very fabric of Europe.

Published Oct. 12, 2017 9:08 AM - Last modified Oct. 12, 2017 9:08 AM