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Uwe Schneidewind

The Knowledge of 7.4 Billion

What role can science play in progressive change? Uwe Schneidewind, President and Chief Research Executive of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, argues for a new model of knowledge production with a broader perspective than elitist approaches.

It is not farfetched to argue that education is key to a society’s development. Only an educated population can find good solutions to the problems and challenges a region faces. The way knowledge is produced always depends on how it is embedded in society. Universities often focus on highly specialized research agendas designed to attract renowned experts, but do they really address the issues that most people face in their daily lives? Uwe Schneidewind analyses the possibilities that science can play in processes of change. In an interview with DDD, he explains how transformative science could be an option for tackling today’s pressing issues.

DDD: To get us started, how would you define transformative science?

Uwe Schneidewind: We see it as science quite explicitly involved in social processes of change. It starts with the line of scientific inquiry, the way it poses the questions it seeks to answer, which focus on central, social challenges. These lines of inquiry are developed in cooperation with stakeholders whose knowledge is integrated into the process. The results of the knowledge production process here are not only interesting for scientific debate; they also provide orientation for the stakeholders shaping these processes. That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind transformative science.

DDD: The sciences have a long tradition of autonomy, especially in Germany. On the one hand, this has meant science doesn't necessarily set transformative goals. On the other, this autonomy has also served as a form of defence against the intense economisation of or political influence on science. Might transformative science lead to less autonomy and as such leave in science open to manipulation?

We cannot simply allow economic questions or interests to be the compass that guides scientific research.

Schneidewind: This is exactly the debate we are having right now, and I think it is very important to take a closer look. When we look back at the last 200 years, science has absolutely focused on social and economic interests in some ways. All the technical sciences would not have been possible otherwise. Logically medical research runs along very concrete lines of inquiry regarding the health of society and of individuals. If you take a closer look, you'll note that very specific interests often influence science today, very, very specific economic utilization interests as a rule. So the question then becomes: can I really change this by creating an apparently completely autonomous science, or do I have to recognise that science will always be embedded in society? Do we try to ensure that a wide multiplicity and plurality of interests can permeate science – also with respect to the issues scientists explore? This is exactly what we are demanding when we insist on a programme of transformative science. We cannot simply allow economic questions or interests to be the compass that guides scientific research. Instead we must ensure that development policy, environmental policy, and socio-political influences are included, so science generates impulses for dealing with the multiplicity of social process of change we are confronted with. This doesn't mean that any and every independent branch of science driven that deals with impartial questions detached from society will disappear from the system. It is about establishing balance, the right ratio in view of the social challenges facing us in the 21st century.

DDD: In this context, one of the most recent large initiatives in Germany promotes the idea of excellence, which in turn seeks to dismantle the bureaucratic structures at universities and research institutes. This is giving rise to a new bureaucracy though that assesses excellence and, in some cases, strengthens the isolation of the ivory tower by uncoupling research from teaching. Yet this concept is still very widespread, supported by large government grants and wields a lot of clout. What do you think about excellence initiatives?

Schneidewind: We are finding that excellence initiatives are increasing the dominance of a very specific understanding of what cutting-edge research is supposed to be, a type of research that is very disciplinary or only very narrowly interdisciplinary. This research explores questions that are of key importance to the industrialised and developed world in particular, and which transport a very specific model of the elite.

We need to take advantage of the entire store of knowledge of the 7.4 billion people who currently inhabit this earth if we are to meet the challenges facing us.

The President of the Max Planck Society Stratmann has repeatedly referred to the 3,000 brilliant minds there are in the world and about how we need to link as many as possible to hubs like Germany. A very specific mindset underpins these statements: ultimately, the only thing that counts, the only thing that can move us forward in this world and create new forms, generate new insights, is the knowledge of 3,000 brilliant minds. I think this is exceedingly dangerous if you take the development policy dimension into account. We need to take advantage of the entire store of knowledge of the 7.4 billion people who currently inhabit this earth if we are to meet the challenges facing us. While this certainly includes expert knowledge from individual disciplines, it also includes the experience of development aid workers on the ground with first-hand experience of how to drive projects forward and it includes NGO activists in Asian countries. These are people who use their knowledge to advance very, very concrete transformation processes. So the danger inherent in this exceedingly narrow definition of excellence is that it reproduces a very specific type of Western and industrialised elite ideal that is then held up as the model for global knowledge development.

DDD: In countries in which the elite is a very small group of people, it is often addressed as the most important agent of transformation capable of driving economic development. Poor segments of the population are generally excluded from development. What possibilities do you see here for effecting change starting with the university concept?

Schneidewind: The problem is that concepts of economic policy and university development look to the Western and especially American technical institute development model described above. A transformative science perspective takes a very different approach. Key transformation spaces are being created in cities like Kigali and Nairobi, since this is where Africa's urbanisation is taking place. A lot will be decided about global development here over the next 50 to 60 years. We are dealing with very concrete issues: “How do I effectively harness the power of civil-society stakeholders to shape these urban transformation processes? How do I deal with the further development of informal settlement structures? How can I link new forms of quality of life with urban development?”

We need to push, to ask how global knowledge production should be shaped for the future.

These are the relevant questions in these spaces, and they can't be answered using high-tech development and narrowly defined cutting-edge science. They require a huge pool of knowledge about transformation processes, which in turn requires new forms of transdisciplinary cooperation among scientists from a wide range of disciplines and local, on-site stakeholders. This is the true cutting-edge science of the 21st century that can be practised in these countries even under very different conditions. Not at a university in Nairobi that imitates some kind of Nobel-Prize model in chemistry from Stanford or MIT. And this understanding, these truly distinct forms of knowledge, are what the global debate needs. They are completely absent. We need to push, to ask how global knowledge production should be shaped for the future.

DDD: So far we have talked about quite a few negative examples. Are there initiatives successfully implementing these principles?

Schneidewind: This entire conversation requires an individual sense of self-awareness on the part of countries and stakeholders in the Global South. The Desert Tech University Consortium of the North African countries is one example. It was founded with the vision of coordinating the production of regenerative energies in North Africa, and not just essentially exporting them to Europe. The idea is to turn regenerative sources of energy into a driver of local energy supplies, and to couple technological developments – which often already exist – with economic and social development models in these countries. This process has been held up by the failure of the Arab Spring and the difficult, political situation in North Africa, of course. But we have seen and are still seeing a whole host of different approaches to how technological development can be completely reconceived at institutes of higher learning – together with economic and social development. This can only succeed if these approaches are the result of interdisciplinary cooperation and local stakeholders are involved.

DDD: Might the Pan-African University be one way of achieving a stronger, communal African voice?

Schneidewind: This would be the perfect platform to drive this process forward under the aegis of local stakeholders, a way to kick off a truly local, truly African knowledge and research agenda. What I mean is that the key questions for the continent and the types of disciplines, knowledge, and science these require, would be defined from an African perspective and as such constitute a very distinct, individual type of self-awareness. We would not be looking to the research and excellence agendas of the developed Global North countries, of Europe and the USA.

The Pan-African University would be a fascinating platform for moving forward.

Instead we would work knowing that in the 21st century, the development of the African continent requires very different forms of knowledge, a different form of inter- and transdisciplinarity, and we would be at the vanguard of this process. The Pan-African University would be a fascinating platform for moving forward. The same applies, of course, to Asian and South American perspectives. If you look at South American development models, for example, which explore new forms of post-capitalist economic systems and new forms of prosperity, this is fertile ground for establishing a South American science, of paving the way forward. South America should really be the refuge for alternative sciences that conceive of totally new dimensions based on “beyond capitalism” perspectives that don't follow the neoliberal economic model currently shaping American science. I can easily imagine very different focal points coming out of regions of the Global South.

DDD: This issue also includes an interview with Tho Ha Vinh, Programme Director at the Bhutan Gross National Happiness Centre. He told us that when he lectured in Vietnam, India, and Bangkok, he noticed that these countries were very open to a specifically Asian approach – especially from Bhutan. During the Post-2015 process in recent years, it seemed like these voices were included more than they were 10 years ago. Have you identified a global trend here? Is the conversation changing?

Ultimately the way we organise global knowledge systems at the moment involves the reproduction of post-colonial-like structures.

Schneidewind: Yes, I have noticed the same trend. What we are seeing from Bhutan is a positive example of a new form of self-awareness. This goes hand in hand with the fact that critical voices from rural countries, people who are dissatisfied with how science is being practised here, are growing ever louder. Examples from the Global South are serving as positive examples. We are now creating a very different foundation for our definition of knowledge on an even playing field. Ultimately the way we organise global knowledge systems at the moment involves the reproduction of post-colonial-like structures, as countries from the Global South continue to point out in the field of economics or now in the context of climate talks. Criticism from and the increasing importance of these countries is now changing the discussion of what adequate knowledge regimes should look like in the 21st century.

Interview by Frederik Caselitz

Photo: “The University of Iowa” by Phil Roeder
2010 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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