Photo Credit: Hans Wigzell

Hans Wigzell: let the researchers free from bureaucrats

The conflict between science and bureaucracy has reached unprecedented levels

Hans Wigzell is former president of the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, adviser to the Swedish government and the European Commission as well as chairman of the Nobel Assembly. He is also professor emeritus of immunology at the Karolinska Institute. For decades, he has been one of the most influential scientists in Europe. In this exclusive interview to EuroScientist, reporter Jens Degett asked him whether research and bureaucracy are compatible.

Wigzell believes that “there is a conflict between science and bureaucracy” even though “there is a need for good bureaucrats.” He adds: “Although scientist often refer to bureaucracy as being ‘bad’ or unnecessary this is not true.” He argues that universities could not function without bureaucrats. However, “the bad thing is when bureaucrats go into details and start micromanaging things following bureaucratic rules.”

A good example of how things can go wrong, in his view, is the Bologna Process, which aims for greater harmonisation in higher education. He denounces the process as a clear case of conflict where bureaucrats are trying to harmonise the educational systems in Europe.

The process aims to ensure that everybody who leaves the university with a PhD degree has the same skills. “This is completely nonsense” declares Wigzell, “There is a need for people with very different educational training and skills. If you want good scientists, you must let them grow and let them free.” He argues that too many regulations and mandatory courses are devastating for creative initiatives.

Too much framing of research goes against the nature of the scientific endeavour. “In my mind science is like a rain forest where you walk around, you hear funny noises and there are good fruits,” Wigzell notes. However, “there must be some control on economy, ethics, etc. but … we should be able to let the researchers free.”

A strong research leader can make a difference by maximising freedom for the researchers within the legal structure. Hans Wigzell gives an example of a Cambridge Vice-Chancellor who define their job as to protect researchers from chaos.

He recognises that “right now, it is much more tough for young scientists to get a university job than a few decades ago.” He notes that there is much more competition and stress. “To get funding is very challenging and it may pressure weak personalities not to behave in a 100% honest way,” he adds.

Part of the solution, in his opinion, is the “need to control the ethical environment when there is a lot of competition.” However, the strongest control is not about creation of bureaucratic rules or finding manipulated articles. “The strongest control is to set up a creative collaborative environment in the lab with high ethical standards,” Wigzell argues and he concludes: “The solution is leadership which can reduce the need for bureaucratic rules.”

Featured image credit: Hans Wigzell

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Jens Degett

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One thought on “Hans Wigzell: let the researchers free from bureaucrats”

  1. While I can back the title 100% and I can relate to seeing the problem in “bureaucrats trying to micromanage details of real life”, I cannot understand that ethics in the context of grant competitions is the primary problem to be addressed. Is this really the key problem for most? I would love to learn. Or what did I miss in the message?
    To me the ideal bureaucracy in scientific research would be largely invisible, only making itself felt to enforce certain practices in researchers (grantees) – alien to scientific graduates in general – to keep their spending compatible with elementary accounting principles.
    In order to make research spending transparent, the bureaucracy of research grants is flying off the handle in some chapters. There is the increasing range of purchases, where one is obliged to “have at least 3 offers” or call a public tender. From the general mistrust (now visibly applied to university professors even more than to politicians, at least east from the old Iron Curtain) professors are pressured to employ extra administrators. Apart from being just another channel of spending money, this is a gap in the job market: 1) It is a rare administrator (i.e. paperwork pro) by education who penetrates deep enough into the research matters of the project, so that his/her work actually does save the professor’s time. 2) It is a rare scientist by education, who is willing to “descend” to the level of administrator, which is largely “taking a bullet for the team”, but which really can help the boss keep some research time, thanks to the “admin’s” insight into the scientific matters.
    The annoying bureaucracy consists of many little annoyances, which could be removed or at least be made more invisible. Take “timesheets”, which are hardly compatible with research work – the point of fact being that the research work takes place PRIMARILY inside the head of the researcher, no matter if (s)he stand by his/her machine or is taking a… well, when one wakes up in one’s own bed in the middle of the night. You cannot audit this and it is folly pretending that you can. Secondly, how about a bit of trust in the researchers regarding the optimization of spendings? Oh well, go ahead and pick on the “economy” of buying a “business” class airline ticket, dear donor (grant agency, state). But why do you think that we would buy unnecessarily expensive spare part or instrument? Why insist on three offers? Why insist that if an instrument is modular, one should issue a tender call on each module?! (real story) Well, I suspect the reason is the “jobs” priority of the Commission, which is an offspring of several national administrations across EU and (being EU directive) blindly followed by many other national administrations. It is easiest to create jobs for paper-pushers (me being one of them lately), it is at the same time consistent with transparency claims. Both job creation and seeming transparent are political valuables. A gentler solution would be reducing the rules and strengthening the audit corps by educating cross-breed researchers/financial auditors, who would a) have the courage and integrity to make decisions of their own (as opposed to a paper-pusher, who by definition needs a committee or a certified advisor on everything straying away from the letter of the law, so that (s)he has no responsibility in the end). This gentler solution, however, is hard to achieve in a bureaucratic way – creating the cross-breed reasonably fast is a venture for industrial time-scales, not for the one of the “authorities”.
    I suspect that the question “what is the biggest problem between bureaucracy and research” will have many answers (country, region, institution matter the most). I also realize that research is not always “exactly scientific” and that in the less-scientific research there are other primary motivations to work than “this is interesting, let’s get to the bottom of it”. So, my call for “trust us more” may be a folly in the reverse. On the above subjects of timesheets and tenders, though, I feel so strongly that I find it hard to believe that my experience is a minority one. Cheers!