Like many other universities, NTNU has an international strategy plan. The goal is to “strengthen quality and relevance of NTNUs enterprise and increase the international recognition”. Highly skilled researchers are handpicked for temporary positions to aid NTNU reach these goals, but there are no concrete plans to keep these people or give them permanent positions after their projects are finalized. As a result, research careers are extremely individualized, and pressure on academic publication and mobility creates great uncertainty. The consequence is a nomadic life as a researcher, where many have to move from position to position, country to country. Who pays the price when a market logic is used to get the best researchers? And who is responsible for their future? This was the background for the ProtestPub, organized together with the Interest Organization for Doctoral Candidates at NTNU, DION, on the 9th of November at DIGS under the topic: Homeless Academics – A debate about academic mobility and knowledge production.

ProtestPub is a series of public meetings where the big questions surrounding the university’s future can be discussed. The idea came through the group New University Norway: an initiative that wants to take the discussions about the university’s function and social mission back to the grassroots. Other drivers are people from Sosiologisk Poliklinikk.
ProtestPub: https://www.facebook.com/protestpub/ 

NewUniversityNorway: http://www.newuniversitynorway.org/ https://www.facebook.com/Newuniversitynorway
Sosiologisk Poliklinikk: http://www.sospol.no/

Enrico Riccardi who is a Post doc at The Department of Chemistry, and board member of DION and SiN moderated the discussion. The panel was made up by Tomas Moe Skjølsvold, postdoc at Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, Carmel Lindkvist, postdoc at Department of Architectural Design, History and Technology, Katrien De Moor, postdoc at the Department of Telematics and member of The Young Academy of Norway, and Torberg Falch, professor at the Department of Economics and vise dean for research at Faculty of Social Sciences and Technology Management.

Photo: Hilde Refstie

Photo: Hilde Refstie

The Postdocalypse

To kick off the discussion Enrico Riccardi showed some numbers described in a news feature from the international weekly journal of science, Nature. The numbers described what many have been referring to as “The Postdocalypse”, how temporary employees within academia struggle with finding permanent positions. Instead of finding stable jobs many end up doing multiple short term engagements often moving from country to country. Providing an example of this was one of the people in the audience at the Protest Pub who told the story of how he had moved around this way now for seventeen years. This type of instability in your life is of course not desirable he argued.

Does mobility = excellence?

Starting out in the panel was Thomas Moe Skjølsvold who said that it is of course difficult to be against mobilization as such. However, what he did not understand was why mobility has become synonymous with excellence. He argued that if the university is reduced to a cosmopolitan elite floating around the MiTs and Harvards we loose something. Academia has a broader responsibility and scientists should also produce knowledge that is of value locally. The value of researcher mobility also varies a lot from field to field.

Katrien De Moor was more interested in how mobility tends to be regarded in a quantitative way. When assessing the value of stays at other institutions in other countries one rarely looks at what was actually done or what skills were acquired during the stay. The focus is not on the quality of the stay, only the quantity. The other question is, who travels? Is it really the most excellent scientists, or is it limited to those who are willing to make the sacrifices that travelling often entails. At some point it should not count against you that you want to do excellent research, but also settle down. Katrien further argued that there are a variety of ways to do excellent research that does not necessarily involve the type of researcher mobility that is currently promoted.

Photo Hilde Refstie

Photo Hilde Refstie

Mobility and equality

Carmel Lindkvist pointed out that not everyone can go. Herself, for example, cannot go on very long term research stays. That does not mean that she does not travel, but it becomes more important for her to be targeted at what she attends being it conferences or shorter fellowships. It is necessary for research stays to have direction, she argued, so it becomes about the quality of the stay, and not just scoring points.

Torberg Falch agreed with much of what was said, but he emphasized that academia is international in nature and we have to follow international trends. We are seeking for the best, and there are, as it should be, much more Phds and Post docs than we have positions.

Thomas pointed out that the focus on mobility as a qualification for research positions is still problematic, because some people are more likely to be mobile than others. Women is one of those groups as they often have more caregiving responsibilities than men. Katrien joined in and specified that mobility is just one mean amongst others to achieve internationalization of research. You can work on international projects and with the technology of today there are a number of meeting points and means online where researchers can come together and still do good research. At the same time, she argued, travel abroad can of course be refreshing and provide you with new perspectives. However, travelling long legs at a time should not be the only means to advance one`s academic career. Generally, she emphasized that the concept of mobility needs to be discussed and broadened. Foe example, how can we increase mobility between academia and industries so that Phds are more valued for jobs? And how do we increase national mobility?

Photo: Nina Aas Røkkum

Photo: Nina Aas Røkkum

Both during the presentations and after, the ProtestPub participants joined in with comments and questions. One member raised the issue of how the constant search for external project money to maintain temporary positions undermines the careers for young researchers. Another asked if the university is really the right place to be anymore if one wants to do socially responsible research and argued that this could also come under the heading “homelessness”. In general, several members questioned the currently promoted way towards “excellent” research and argued that there are many paths towards doing great research that also takes into consideration the well-being of the people involved.

Unfortunately, we were not able to get someone from the rector`s office to sit in the panel this time. We do hope though, that some of the reasoning showed in this discussion can also make its way to the top in NTNU to avoid some of the short and long term destructive effects of the “postdocalypse”.

Photo: Eli Smeplass

Photo: Eli Smeplass

As usual the Protest Pub was conducted as an interactive conversation. This time around we had also added Kahoot where the participants could answer questions through an app with results turning up on-screen. The participants answered everything from “Do you know which city you will be in in three years (9 yes, 28 no)” to “Do you have a partner that is willing to move with you to another country (13 yes, 13 no, 10 not applicable)”. The tool was a great way to learn more about the members attending and we will continue to experiment with various ways to spur and create engagements in discussions at future ProtestPubs. Because Our Ideas Matter.
Hilde Refstie – Member ProtestPub

For more information on DION, see http://org.ntnu.no/dion/