The Significance of the Leiden Declaration

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This November at Leiden in the Netherlands the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities will join research-intensive universities from around the world in signing a statement affirming the important role of the social sciences and humanities in the global research landscape. Even if in such institutions few issues are accorded more significance than the vitality and quality of scholarship, it is still somewhat surprising to see this kind of issue provoking concerted action on an international scale. Usually, as in the case of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955 or subsequent statements emanating from the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, declarations of this sort are made when the human stakes are perceived to be particularly high.

To make an international statement presupposes not only that something significant is at stake, but also that there exists an audience in need of hearing it. For whose benefit the declaration is being issued is just as important a question to consider as the motive for its being done.

To some extent the universities will be addressing themselves. In 1956, C.P. Snow observed famously that a culture focused on science and technology was in the ascendant, that history was “on the side” of technology, and that in the years after Hiroshima, science was “expansive, . . . the more confident after its bout of Oppenheimerian self-criticism.” Now, more than fifty years later, it would appear that in our universities and other national institutions there is an increasingly acknowledged need for further correction: one not unrelated to Robert Oppenheimer’s attempt to contain the genie of nuclear power, though very different in focus. As technology changes and develops at breathtaking speed we hear ever more frequently expressed the view that, for the good of our collective project as human beings, what Snow called “traditional culture”—constituted largely by the humanities and social sciences—needs to be nurtured, supported and brought back into a constructive and mutually enriching relationship with science and technology.

Although it does not use quite those words, the statement to be signed in Leiden signals that in the world’s leading research universities there is growing concern over the perceived marginalization and undervaluing of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. While in the world outside the academy there exists a very obvious presumption that the “hard” sciences and technology must inevitably prevail over the “soft” concerns of art and society, this has also become a significant internal problem for universities, especially for the way in which they seek to understand and articulate the relationship between disciplines and faculties. That is why I suggested that at Leiden the signing institutions will in part be speaking to themselves.

Because the sources of research funding are mostly external to the universities in which the work of discovery and innovation is done, and because very little of that work can advance without material support, it is not surprising that in time research priorities within those institutions come to reflect an agenda established and prosecuted outside of them. That is not inherently problematic. After all, the universities do exist in part to be responsive to the needs and concerns of society.

But it can constrain discovery--unless the universities assert their critical function, that is, and insist upon an appropriate breadth and openness to the field of enquiry. The Leiden statement I take to be just such an insistence, expressing the universities’ determination to resist normative or exclusive emphasis on certain groups of disciplines, to restore balance and context, and to re-engage the entire research base so that we can more effectively address in all their complexity the problems that face the world today. Although clearly intended as a corrective to the evolving imbalance in our research activities, Leiden will not repudiate any group of disciplines, but will instead raise a flag for inter-disciplinary respect and cooperation. The message will certainly not be without point inside our institutions.

Beyond them it will have even greater importance. Obviously it will help the case being made now, and on almost every continent, for sustained and appropriate funding for research in the social sciences and humanities. But beyond that, it will indicate the world’s leading universities’ refusal to collude in an unreflecting drift towards global technocracy, in any further effacement of the human, social and ecological considerations outside of which the value of science and technology is unknowable. Because of the deeply Manichean predisposition of our culture there will inevitably be those who interpret this as tantamount to gainsaying technology, but it is critically important that the declaration not be misunderstood in that way. Leiden does not represent an attempt to return us to the exclusive belief, memorably articulated by Alexander Pope, that “the proper study of Mankind is Man.” Instead, it merely reminds us that in our attempt to account for and use the world of matter and technic, our humanity is always part of the equation. The idea is far more than academic.