Complexity, Interdisciplinarity and Overview: Virtues of 21st Century Universities

Measuring university quality: a biased affair

There is one unchallenged parameter for quality rankings of universities: publications in peer-reviewed journals. The same holds for quality measurements of candidates applying for professors’ chairs at ambitious research universities. Peer-reviewed publications typically have a rather narrow disciplinary scope. Moreover, the flow of research money also follows disciplinary logic. The scientific peers deciding on research grants tend to share the same mentality with the publication peers. All this makes for a strong bias in favour of disciplinary excellence when academic quality is measured.

The bias is exacerbated when the ranking of journals is taken into account. For academic research careers, you have to show publications in so-called “A journals”. Their peer review tends to be strictly disciplinary, although top journals like Nature or Science have a multidisciplinary appearance and at least encourage some interdisciplinary consideration of a paper’s impact.

In public debates about this bias, representatives of the disciplines would reply that their impact is universal and their methods often come from neighbouring disciplines, so they are not so “disciplinary” as they may look. But that is no satisfactory excuse, given the fact that some of the biggest research challenges of our days find no adequate resonance in the submitted papers sections of A journals.

The general public as well as politicians and the media are aware of the quality rankings of universities, research institutions and countries. The most popular and most visible indicator is, of course, the head count of Nobel Prize winners. What politicians and the public are typically unaware of is the strong disciplinary bias that governs publications in A journals and even more the Nobel Prizes. These exist only for three natural science disciplines, physics, chemistry and medicine/physiology. The Peace and Literature Prizes are outside academia, and the Economics Prize, since 1969, is not a Nobel Prize proper but the Swedish Central Bank’s Prize in Economic Sciences “in Memory of Alfred Nobel”. Even this has become more and more a prize reflecting disciplinary excellence.

Complex systems and truly transdisciplinary problems are at a disadvantage when it comes to peer-reviewed journals, university rankings and academic careers. It is not easy at all to measure the extent of that disadvantage because scientists aiming at academic careers typically don’t even try to address complex and transdisciplinary problems, knowing that it would be difficult to find adequate journals.

Practical problem solving requires interdisciplinary research

Real world problems such as the ecosystem of the Black Sea and its eutrophication; the cultural determinants for the spreading of contagious diseases; or explanations for the miraculous growth since fifteen years of the Chinese economy, require interdisciplinary approaches. Solving them typically is a highly political affair, and quick results are rare. It may take decades to prove a hypothesis. Researchers engaging in such complex problems cannot realistically hope to win a Nobel Prize or similar honours during their life time. Universities that are in need of public recognition, i.e. high academic ranking scores, tend also to neglect interdisciplinary research even if they are encouraged by governments, local communities or the private sector to engage in it.

According to Einstein, we cannot solve problems using the methods that have created the problems. But in the present mindset, humanity tries exactly to do that. Many of the problems of our world relate to relatively blind applications of science and technology and leaving the steering to market powers or to state bureaucracies. The competition for economic achievement and scientific excellence is a reflection of that mindset. And the mechanism of scientific quality control nearly excludes the growing of sciences that analyse the complex, non-disciplinary nature of the prevailing destructive mechanisms.

A chance for Europe

Universities in Europe may be well positioned just to take a bold and new approach and embrace complex, interdisciplinary research. As a rule, they are not in a position financially to compete with disciplinary excellence of the mega-enterprises of US American universities. The latter can throw hundreds of millions of dollars at one problem such as the biochemistry of Alzheimers disease. Given the history and culture of European countries, European universities may well be better equipped than their American counterparts to successfully work on the fascinating array of complex and interdisciplinary problems our world is facing. Europe provides unique “laboratory” conditions for the study of some of the biggest real world problems.

Let me sketch out some of the problems that are worth studying:

  • Healthy societies need a fair balance between public and private goods, or else between democratically legitimated laws and the powers of markets. Today’s markets are international, while laws remained national. This gives markets an unfair superiority over the law. Only through international legislation do we have a chance of re-balancing public and private interests. The EU tries to do exactly that. We need to study how well that works and what the limits and what the obstacles are.
  • Global warming has become the highest environmental concern. Which are the realistic measures of mitigation and what can we do in terms of adaptation? I suppose we are in need for a new technological revolution that allows us to more or less de-couple economic and social well-being from the growth of energy demand. But which are the technologies doing that? And which are the policies to give those new technologies a realistic chance to take off?
  • Ageing societies are in need of a fundamental restructuring of their social security systems. I suppose that on average people will have to work some five years longer. But they need not do the same work that has been designed for people aged 25–50. In fact, there are hundreds of societal and economic functions that can be better performed by the elderly than by the young. Think of all the tasks requiring experience, judgement, caution and care. In addition, there are many functions where age represents at least no major disadvantage. The respective jobs have to be designed, and regulation has to be developed and adopted encouraging the elderly to accepts the new assignments.
  • Globalisation, migration and rapid structural change have put an enormous stress on people. In part that can be answered by life-long learning, – an exciting challenge to our educational system. In part, however, the new rapid changes have made people insecure, fearful and often wildly angry. In this state of mind, many have resorted to fairly primitive, often fundamentalist religions. The nexus between rapid-change economies and religious fundamentalism has consistently been denied. I suggest it should be addressed.

These are four out of perhaps fifty major and complex questions waiting to be addressed. Let me venture to say that old Europe, after having gone through the abysses of political fundamentalism, ethnic and racial violence and devastating wars, has emerged to be uniquely qualified to address such kinds of complex and intricate problems. The European unification movement, starting with Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide de Gasperi and leading in 2007 to the 27 members European Union stretching from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, has been a unique success story, unparalleled in human history, of peace making, of multiculturalism, and of cultural and scientific rejuvenation. We Europeans should not be shy about ourselves, even if China has higher growth rates, the USA have a more formidable military power, and the Islamic world shows a more passionate dynamism. Hasty growth, powerful armies and aggressive passion may turn out to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Opportunities for the elderly

It would lead too far into fields beyond the competence of the author to expand further on European visions. Instead, I choose to use the Festschrift for one of the grand old men of intellectual Europe as a welcome occasion to say a few words about new opportunities for the elderly.

The demographic transition from the predominance of the young in a growing population towards a stable population with a high proportion of old people is typically deplored by politicians, journalists, and by the managers of the pension systems.

In reality, I suggest, this is the natural and unavoidable state of a “sustainable” society. It also represents a new cultural universe full of exciting new opportunities. One of them lies indeed in harnessing the specific capacities of the elderly.

Let us begin with the family. What is a better holiday from young families’ stress than leaving the children under grandparents’ supervision? Actually, children tend to like that too, for a change, exploiting the seasoned habits of tolerance of the old generation.

But we can go further into public life and the private sector. Who is there in the local community to defend and protect cultural heritage and the beauties of the environment? Who is there to come with wise judgement as opposed to profit maximising options for the economically powerful? Who has the time to welcome guests from near and far and make them feel at home? Who can repair an old radio manufactured in 1970? And who is so attached to the village or the small town not to be lured into the already overcrowded megacities? It’s all the old generation folks.

One word about social security. The present system of employment knows one sharp moment in one’s life where retirement begins. Only self-employed people such as farmers, doctors, independent craftsmen or artists have maintained the habit of a gradual retirement. It is the masses of employed people who constitute the “demographic problem” as they sharply retire by the millions. What I suggest is not what is presently introduced in Germany, namely a mechanical prolongation of the work life before retirement from the age of 65 to 67. What I would find a lot more attractive is the establishment of a “third phase” of life with new job opportunities for the elderly and with very flexible working hours. The elderly would have options how much of the pension benefits earned during the “second phase” of ordinary work they want to consume during their third phase. The earlier they do that, the lower the benefits. Conversely, if they gainfully work in the third phase until the age of eighty without touching their benefits from the second phase, then they would earn bonanza payments easily three times as high as normal after retiring from the third phase. All sides would benefit: Gainful and meaningful work beyond second phase retirement means added value to the economy; the public or private pension funds benefit from not having to pay for fifteen years; and the elderly workers enjoy satisfaction and a significantly higher income during their old age. Sweden has introduced a somewhat similar system (without explicitly speaking about a third phase) and has reduced youth unemployment dramatically, chiefly because there was more added value around, from which added employment arose.

Virtues of 21st century universities

Let us now go a step further into the academic world that has been particularly impatient kicking the elderly out, – because they seemed incompetent to publish in A journals. If the complex and interdisciplinary problems of which I mentioned a few are to be addressed, it will be specifically the wealth of experience and oversight of the old generation scientists that qualifies them. The scarce resource in such fields is not methods of mathematics or molecular biology that impress the peers working for the A journals. It is rather the judgement about which elements from quite different disciplines are needed to be brought into a synergistic relation.

Think of the challenge of re-balancing public with private goods. That work will require an understanding of internationally mobile capital; international law, notably trade law; some history and philosophy of public goods and democracy; concrete experience with successful public-private partnerships; knowledge of the working methods and legitimacy of civil society groups, etc. etc. The disciplinary departments of political science or economics or law would be completely overwhelmed by the complexity of this challenge. Hence they tend show no inclination to engage in that kind of research and they don’t reach out to other departments to overcome their perplexity.

The study of global warming faces similar challenges. Here there is need of first class scientists of meteorology, botany or ocean dynamics to cope with the challenge, but also questions abound of international law, capital markets, political analysis, civil society or technologies.

All the assumed fifty odd complex questions referred to earlier show the same feature of needing disciplinary facts and interdisciplinary reasoning and analysis. In most cases, academic study is just not enough. Universities also need to leave the ivory tower and interact with real world actors in the public and private sectors. This is a demand that cannot be easily met by academic youngsters. They tend to be too impatient, too ignorant of the needs and limits of public life, or too greedy of making money in the private sector.

It is my belief that European universities of the 21st century should try to excel in the study of such complex, interdisciplinary problems. Also academic teaching would benefit from it, because universities should not graduate their students packed with disciplinary knowledge and methods and without exposure to the real world complexities. If non-European universities join in, – all the better.

The university staff would highly benefit from a healthy mix of young and old, of “hungry”, impatient researchers and wise and patient scholars having the overview of complex problems. As for the qualifications of the elderly, they must enjoy the mentality of the impatient youngsters but they should also have a credible dignity hat typically comes with age.

It would be the best of all (academic) worlds if also a new generation of A Journals emerged that accepts publications with a definitely interdisciplinary scope, using peers of outstanding credibility and judgement. Peers like Professor Mircea Maliţa!

Festschrift at the occasion of the 80th birthday of Professor Mircea Maliţa, “Coping with Complexity at the Beginning of a New Century”