Research and Insights

One of the most significant societal challenges of the 21st century is socio-ecological change and transformation. It involves the reorganization of current socio-economic structures and institutions in a way that is compatible with social and ecological limits. Although some recent developments indicate a crisis of trust in expert knowledge (such as climate change denial, fake news, among others), the existential threat to human livelihood due to rapidly advancing climate change and extensive biodiversity loss is hardly questioned in academic and political debates.

However, socio-ecological transformation is an extremely complex issue as various processes are intertwined. These include, for example, multidimensionality and co-evolution, the involvement of various actors, stability and dynamics of change, path dependencies, long-term effects, (fundamental) uncertainty, political power asymmetries, and normative foundations that encompass social, ecological, and economic dimensions. Planetary boundaries and ecologically irreversible tipping points have been extensively examined and illustrated, particularly in natural sciences.

In contrast, the multiple interdependencies of socio-ecological transformation call for social science and economic research approaches that question or oppose the core assumptions of mainstream economics such as economic growth, private property, competitiveness, efficiency, methodological individualism, and local non-saturation of consumption preferences. Economic approaches that focus more on these issues, such as sufficiency policy and economics, Doughnut Economics, or post- and de-growth approaches, have so far found little entry into academic debates. For the research to be transformative, at this juncture, research must be interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, radically innovative, and, above all, include long-term research agendas.

This contribution examines why the current university science system and its inherently competitive evaluation mechanisms are in many areas unsuitable to play a supportive role in this much needed transformation, and why they provide the wrong economic incentives for transformative research. Specifically, our contribution highlights the inadequate conditions for critical societal transformation research within the institutional framework of capitalist universities, which have been shaped by neoliberal restructuring and university reforms in recent years and decades.

Managerial turn and commercialization of universities

The managerial turn, based on neoliberal criticism of the lack of  “effectiveness,” “productivity,” and “efficiency” of state universities, has transformed the university's self-understanding from a state educational institution to a competitive enterprise (see the extensive work on “Academic Capitalism” by Richard Münch). The managerial turn in higher education heavily relies on the application of standardized bibliometric evaluation methods developed since the 1960s. These include, for example, the Science Citation Index (SCI), the Journal Impact Factor, and the expansion of the Web of Science database.

This made it possible to measure scientific output in the form of citation and impact scores, triggering a metric tide. With the digitalization of publication organs, the associated bibliometric information, indicators and citation measures (e.g., the Hirsch Index) have become an easily accessible source for the competitive organization of quality control and the stratification dynamics in academia.

As a result, competitive relations between academic institutions and individual researchers have intensified. At the same time, universities in the German-speaking region are still largely shaped by the model of traditional “Ordinarien-Universtitäten” with a strong hierarchical organizational structure. Tilman Reitz speaks of "Verhofung" and the "disciplining function" of modern universities. In many areas, universities are characterized by problematic coexistence of a neo-feudal hierarchical logic with neoliberal flexibilization and precarization. They thus combine the worst of both worlds and hardly form a good breeding ground for critical and future-oriented transformative research.

The competition-oriented governance of universities initiated by the managerial turn has created a competition ecology that operates at different ontological levels. At the micro-level, researchers compete for visibility, research funding, and (permanent) positions. At the meso-level, universities compete for positions, visibility, students, and research funding, while states also compete for clusters of excellence at the macro-level.

In the course of this development, Germany and Austria have witnessed a massive expansion of third-party funded research and project staff in recent years. This has been accompanied by an increasing project-oriented nature of knowledge production leading to research organizations that focus merely on solving clearly pre-defined research questions in given and often tight time frames. This goes hand in hand with an increasing output orientation of knowledge production, which has been criticized by many as "publish or perish."

The costs of competition

The extensive competition at different levels provides many negative incentives for knowledge production. Moreover, it also leads to high costs of competition in at least three areas. Hence, in what follows we distinguish between the scientific-epistemological, social and psychological, and economic costs of competition.

Both, the project-oriented nature  of research itself and the lack of innovation capacity of science, can be seen as scientific-epistemological costs of competition, as recently demonstrated in a study in Nature. Furthermore, the replication crisis in the social sciences and the marginalization of heterodox research outside the economic mainstream can be seen as a consequence of the metricization of research evaluation and the associated publication pressure.

Under social and psychological costs of competition, we understand the high burden of stress and mental health problems that affect younger researchers, in particular, attributed to a "toxic research culture." Due to the precarious working conditions at universities, there are also several tendencies of social homogenization along gender, ethnicity, and class. For example, the proportion of women among professors in Germany and Austria is less than 30%, despite various gender equality measures.

The economic costs of competition include administrative and organizational costs. These initially include the costs of non-success, which also includes the time spent for planning and setting up research proposals for not-yet-approved although often very well-evaluated projects. The European University Association estimates that 30-50% of the research fundings received from Horizon 2020 are used to cover the costs of all proposals, which is already an alarming proportion in itself. Yet, in addition, there are costs associated with writing often extensive reviews for proposals. For example, it is estimated that the time spent on evaluations for the UK Research Council in 2005/06 was about 192 years.

In addition to these implementation costs, there are also administrative costs for the process handling at various bureaucratic levels in different institutions: from universities (e.g. third-party offices, human resources departments, research services, legal departments), to national and international funding agencies. Summing up, these  three areas (proposal preparation, evaluation, and administration/organization), it can be estimated that almost 100% of the third-party funds awarded through competitive research funding are directly or indirectly used for the organization and implementation of this competition. On top of this, there are the monopoly rents that academic publishers collect through the privatization of knowledge products.

The four Ds of a critical, transformative academia

In sum, the inherent competitive logic of modern capitalist academia does not provide a good framework for critical research on societal transformation. Instead, interdisciplinarity, innovation, and research outside the mainstream, pluralism of perspective and long-term research agendas are rather hindered than promoted. A critical academia which would be better suited to support transformation research to cope with the current poly-crisis would require to meet the following four requirements:

First, the Decommodification of the university: This includes, in particular, the de-precarization of employment contracts for researchers, enabling the development and pursuit of long-term research perspectives. This must be accompanied by a departure from previous metricized performance and measurement logics and a change in the recognition and distribution mechanisms in the scientific system to equally include research, teaching, and knowledge transfer.

Second, the Democratization of universities: In today's universities, intra-university decision-making is either non-democratic or, at best, pre-democratic. The multi-level, hierarchical system creates an asymmetry of power that exacerbates dependencies and favors opaque network structures. In many cases this leads  to the detriment of social groups that do not belong to the hegemonic circle at universities, such as women, people from less privileged class backgrounds, or people with vulnerable immigration status. 

Third, Diversity and inclusion: Diversity refers to the equal collaboration of different scientific disciplines and the promotion of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary dialog, as well as the promotion of diverse career profiles, as recently called for in the CoARA initiative (Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment) of the EU Commission. A step in this direction is the alliance of public research institutions in the Netherlands with its goal of "redesigning academic career paths."

Fourth, strengthening the Dialog between science and society: Following the call for public sociology, engagements with societal actors must be intensified. While there are efforts to increase the value of knowledge transfer as a new performance goal, one should refrain from implementing new competitive logics (e.g., number of media appearances, newspaper commentaries, etc.). Instead, Michael Burawoy calls for the reinforcement of exchanges and mutual learning processes.

A university of the 21st century that is equipped for the great challenges of the future must not only assume the societal responsibility of science but should also actively position itself against the growth compulsion of capitalist accumulation in order to create space for innovative and transformative knowledge generation.


Disclaimer: This article is a translated version of the intervention that was originally published in German language as part of the Economists For Future Debate Series in the online magazine Makronom. Hence, some of the linked references are in German. 

About the authors:

Stephan Pühringer is a socio-economist and deputy head of the Institute for Comprehensive Economic Analysis (ICAE) at Johannes Kepler University Linz. He was recently awarded with the START Grant for his project “Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation and Economic Reasoning” (SETER), by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. His research interests include Critical Competition Research, Political Economy of Socio-Ecological Transformation, Science Studies, and Neoliberalism Studies.

Carina Altreiter is a sociologist at Vienna University of Economics and Business and conducts research on topics such as the transformation of the world of work, social inequality, political processing of socio-economic change, and processes of competition.