In recent years public funding for research conducted in Dutch law schools has become ever more scarce. In the past, legal research was for the most part funded directly by the ministry of Science and Education. Law schools had a stable source of income so individual researchers did not have to worry about funding and could focus solely on their teaching and research. In this environment of great autonomy and intellectual freedom, researchers had the possibility to produce excellent research, but it also allowed them to take things for granted and become complacent. In recent years, fears for the latter have driven policymakers at the ministry to divert a big part of these direct funds to the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Investigation (NWO), which distributes public research grants to individual researchers in different fields by way of competition. Chances of success are slim and the whole process is time-consuming. Researchers nowadays spent a lot of their free time writing research proposals and judging proposals of others as unpaid members of a NWO-jury. This already bad situation is about to become worse. Recently, Minister Verhagen of economic affairs has announced that he wishes to invest in nine ‘top sectors’ of the Dutch economy. NWO has reacted by setting up special funding programs for these nine ‘economic top sectors’. Needless to say, Law isn’t one of them, so as a result public funding for legal research will become even more scarce.
Anno 2012 Dutch legal researchers increasingly have to justify their activities and their contribution to society and the economy in order to receive funding. It seems like policymakers are more and more skeptical about the value of research in the Humanities (of which I consider Law to be a part). As a result, not only is our funding threatened, but in the end also our intellectual freedom and autonomy. In order to be successful at winning research grants, legal researchers have to frame their research proposals (and thus their thinking) in the dominant idiom of ‘economical and societal needs’. This is simply not the way science works; research in the Humanities, like all scientific inquiry, isn’t directly guided by societal and economic needs, but by creativity and intellectual curiosity. Our research, if successful, leads to greater insight or understanding. There is no guarantee however that it provides a direct solution to society’s problems, or contributes to its economic welfare.
If the latter is the case, how can public funding of research in the field of Humanities be justified? This is one of the central questions posed in a very interesting essay written by Stefan Collini, Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University, called ‘What are universities for?’. Collini notes that the never-ending debate about the value and purposes of universities has always fallen into the dispiriting pattern of the conflict between the ‘useful’ and the ‘useless’. Throughout their modern history the Humanities have always risked being branded as having no purpose and thus being ‘useless’.
In this short blog post I don’t want to expand too much on Collini’s great essay. Instead, I want to point out an interesting link between Collini’s reflections and the observations of another astute philosopher, namely Tocqueville (1805-1859). In his Democracy in America, Tocqueville argues that in democratic societies, with its attachment to materialism and prosperity, there is a constant tendency to value the (‘useful’) applied sciences more than the (‘useless’) theoretic sciences. This as opposed to aristocratic societies, where, according to Tocqueville, scientific research is not connected to society’s quest for material wealth, but is conducted in splendid isolation, by members of a nobility having all the wealth, free time and inclination to devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge. I believe Tocqueville has an important point here, one that partly explains the current predicament of the Humanities. If true, it suggests that in order to overcome the false distinction between the ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ sciences, our democracy itself needs to change and develop more ‘aristocratic’ attitudes, at least where science is concerned. No small task indeed.