Thursday, 20 May 2010

From synthetic genome to synthetic life: prospects as well as perils of gene technology exponentially multiplied

In today's issue of Science it is announced that (in)famous private genetics research wizard Craig Venter's team has succeeded in cooking a working genome out of non-living constituents. The popular summary describes the crucial breakthrough as being (1) not only making DNA-strands, but making them properly packed in the form of chromosomes, (2) inserting the synthetic chromosome into bacteria as replacement for its "natural" chromosome, (3) ending up with a living organism (the bacteria) that continued to replicate and produce proteins. Since the technique involves the use of "natural" bacteria as hosts for the synthetic DNA, this is not a case of the creation of synthetic life. Therefore, the suggestion by, e.g., Art Caplan that Venter and colleagues' achievement means that "What does it mean to be alive? /.../ What seemed to be an intractable riddle -- and one with significant religious overtones -- has been solved" is a clear overstatement (and, arguably, partial evidence that bioethics needs to be combined with careful attention to scientific detail). This misreading of what has actually happened is repeated in many newsreports, also in my own country. It still remains to be seen if human engineering is capable of creating a wholly synthetic living organism.

Nevertheless, the news clearly means that Venter and colleagues  race to the top of Nobel Prize candidates for the coming decade. The achievement is truly stunning – both as a piece of genetic engineering, and as a source for understanding scientifically what is involved in organic reproduction and many other processes involving the genome. During the last 15 plus years that I have worked as a researcher and a commissioned expert on the ethics of genetics, I have had reason to touch on the possibility of gene technology breaking lose from the bonds of using as building blocks only pieces of DNA already to be found in nature a few times. My message has been, first, that this possibility seems rather remote and, second, that when it is realised, the ethical issues surrounding gene technology will not only multiply, but exponentially so. On the first point I was wrong, wrong, wrong. The second one, however, holds firmer than ever.

The new area of synthetic genomics opened up by Venter's and colleagues' result is of relevance primarily for two areas of genetic research and development: (1) basic science (that gets a new tool to play around with for the attainment of new knowledge), (2) genetic modification and design. However, as far as I can understand, it will not have any significant impact on what is so far the most potent application of gene technology to human beings: genetic testing and analysis. Synthetically made genetic variants never before present in nature will not improve our abilities to detect the genes of cells, humans or other organisms. In that case, the prospects offered by nanotechnological methods for studying the content of cells without destroying them has a greater potential for changing the prerequisites of present-day ethics discussion about genetic testing, prenatal diagnosis and, in particular, preimplantation and preconception genetic diagnosis (the latter being detection of the genome of gametes that allows these to be subsequently used for reproduction).

With regard to genetic modification and design, the last two decades have seen many applications to non-human organisms, primarily crops and animals used for food, pharmaceutical production or medical research. Although the modifications done so far have not been very far-reaching (mostly changes of one or a few features of organisms), the effects are rather unsettling. Biologists and Ecologists warned early on for systemic effects within the DNA, the ability of the modified DNA to spread into the rest of nature and for the modified variant's capability of taking over habitats and thereby eradicate other species and variants through ordinary processes of natural selection. In sum, due to our lack of understanding of the subtleties of the DNA and its adventures in larger biotic complexes, this side of genomics can be likened to a lottery with all our basic living conditions in the pot in order to gain a few bucks here and there. All of these scenarios have proved real enough, albeit commercial interests have so far been powerful enough not to have policy makers react as they should have to begin with. The possibility of beefing up this virtual wild west of in situ technological experimentation with synthetic genomics is hardly appealing.

Moving over to genetic modification applied to human beings, this has been a wet dream of medical researchers for many decades and work on achieving the curing of some of what are doubtlessly the worst diseases we may imagine has been committed. However, what has been achieved so far is two results: prohibition and failure. All around the world, so-called germ-line genetic modification of human beings is legally banned in some way or other (if nothing else through bans on so-called reproductive cloning). The reason for the banned is either mystical ideas about such modification violating religious commands, incomprehensible ideas about the procedure threatening human autonomy, dignity or identity, or the much more sensible claim that such a procedure is much too uncertain to be responsible (i.e. the argument that applies with even greater force to non-human genetic modification). It does not appear overly speculative to suggest that the addition of the possibility of synthetic germ-line genetic modification would mainly change this argumentative and legislative picture to the disadvantage of genetic modification supporters.

Regarding somatic genetic modification, medical science has indeed seen some daring attempts, but alas with rather depressing outcomes. It seems that, apparently, the theoretically much less complex undertaking of modifying the genome of adult cells in the body, is proved by experience to suffer from uncertainties making it not very controversial to suggest that also such applications are very hard to justify before our understanding of the mechanisms involved have multiplied and deepened considerably. Again, adding synthetic genomics to that calculus seems mostly to worsen the prospects of ethically responsible gene therapy.

None of this will, of course, intimidate those people whose megalomaniac lack of consideration for the collateral damage of their attempts to have their names written into the book of history have already produced a number of scandals and tasteless applications within, e.g., preimplantation genetic diagnosis, reproductive medicine, stem cell science and reproductive cloning. Such people are presumably already drooling over the prospect of cooking some of their own DNA and chromosomes and then lure some desperate people into playing guinea pigs. Similarly, regarding the non-human applications, the large companies presently cashing in handsomely on the risking of all our livelihood can be expected to apply the same wild west mentality to the new possibilities delivered by Venter & Co.

For this reason, the urgent call of Art Caplan for oversight and regulation is well placed to say the least, and the challenge that he highlights of implementing a system for identifying synthetic genomic products is indeed important to take on. However, Caplan seems to me overly optimistic about what sort of applications will in fact see the light of day, and actually naïve regarding the risks involved. His dream about synthetically engineered bacteria that solve our economic, environmental and human problems is, to my mind, just as unrealistic as the dreams of the geneticists of the 1980's that DNA technology would end world hunger. What we got was Roundup Ready. There's simply no big money in that sort of thing, it creates no sustainable markets; for that, what's needed are small improvement opportunities that at the same time sustains the underlying problem (e.g. poverty and dependence). Rather, my reaction is that governments all over the world now have a golden opportunity to put a halt to any further development of the institutionalised irresponsibility that is the business of non-human genetic modification. In the human case, the safeguards are already in place. Let's apply the same common sense reasoning to the non-human case, and thereby create an opportunity for responsible technological progress – at least from this synthetic point and onwards.

Postscript: having finished this piece, a number of my colleagues around the world have made their initial comments. A nice collection is provided by the BBC.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

What is a Religious Belief?

This piece is unusually long for a blog entry, and I've been working on it for some time. It contains the results (so far) of what is basically a side-track of a process of thought still in progress regarding the nature and values of secular societies.

The last decade or so has seen a revival of an increased public antagonism between self-proclaimed representatives of religious and non-religious people. The "New Atheism" movement (which mostly - if not merely - repeats Hume's and Russell's and maybe even (God forbid!) Nietzsche's classic criticism of religious belief and institutions, beefed up with some recent science) has become the stuff that fame is made of, thanks mainly to Richard Dawkins, and entered the world of populist politics through debaters such as P.Z. Myers. On the activist end, we have the conscious provocations such as the Danish Mohammad cartoons, which through the predictable reactions of outrage among many Muslims lead us over the religion side.

For these reactions, as we know, were not only about expressing a sense of humiliation, but about making claims on other countries not to apply their own laws, but rather let their policies be dictated by religious doctrine. Similarly, high-placed and influential religious leaders have sharpened the tone as regards their claim to authority considerably in general – also in relation to other religious movements. Just a couple of years ago, the current Pope openly declared all variants of Christianity except the one preached by the Roman Catholic Church to be false doctrines, thus reclaiming a sort of implacable position many of us would have believed irreversibly dated within educated Christianity. In several instances around the world, other Christian as well as Muslim, leaders have been on the offensive (and quite successfully so) to have the sort of freedom of religion statutes that are a part of the constitution of most developed countries protect them from abiding by laws otherwise applicable to citizens, e.g. this Swedish case regarding hate speech against homosexual people, alternatively, to have laws protecting religious freedom protect only the affirmation of religious belief, like in this recent Polish case. On a grander scale, we have the claims of predominantly Muslim leaders and countries to have so-called defamation of religion be declared as a human rights offense by the U.N. More subtle is the recent uptake of the so-called post-secularist claim that societies not based on or enforcing religion of some sort fail to meet fundamental "spiritual" needs of their citizens, thus cautiously pushing for a return of of the idea of the primacy of religion in politics, as well as for the return of doctrinal rather than informational religious public education.

In total, this highly infected situation of multi-level polarised public antagonism, makes it difficult for people like myself, who have some trouble feeling at home in any of the opposing camps. Or, rather, on my part, who usually describe myself as totally devoid of any religious inclinations, it has become so due to some of the recent rhetoric on the new atheist side. I say rhetoric, because I have not been able to reconstruct it as a piece of carefully made rational reasoning, but rather as a strategy of simplification employed to deflect public opposition and to attract sympathy among the already converted. It creates a sort of "either you're with us or you're against us" set-up that I personally find just as manipulative as I did in my youth when my hesitation to participate in the then highly pastoral end-of-school ceremonies held in the local church was responded to with accusations of not caring about moral values, lacking a sense of spirituality, wanting to destroy nice traditions, and similar things. Or when, in my, at the time rather conservative, home town I dared to openly express left-leaning political ideas and immediately was met by the "so you want to have it as in the Soviet Union" response. This has led me to ponder a bit what a well worked out rational atheist line of reasoning should look like, and this is what this comment is about.

A lot of the atheism-religion/secular-pastoral antagonisms (including the so-called culture/science wars) are as indicated above about claims to valid societal authority, and I will not be saying much about that, besides pointing out that religious belief is not automatically a claim to political authority or privilege, and that the issue I will be commenting on is central also for the political angle on the atheism-religion antagonism. That is, although there are indeed various brands of fundamentalist and creationist religion around, it is perfectly possible to be religious without being fundamentalist or creationist. Actually, in my part of the word, this is the rule and in several other parts as well, as far as I know. Instead, I want to focus on a concept that is as central for any atheist as it is for any religious believer, namely the concept of (theist or deist) religious belief itself. And I want to sketch a bit about what happens if you investigate this concept through the lenses of philosophical analysis and rational thinking and apply this to the atheism-religion antagonism. My reason for this take is the following: the basic tenet of any atheism is to claim that (theist/deist) religious belief is false, and if this opinion is to be the result of a rational argument it better rest on a clear definition of what it is denying. By the same token, secularism, which is often expressed as the idea that religion and politics should be kept separate would need a clear concept of religion to be open to rational assessment. Of course, the same holds for any attempt to study religious or non-religious belief scientifically.

I will soon get to the last mentioned point, but first I want to comment on what is or may be at stake when assessing (a) religious belief - that is, what methodological presumptions we need to make. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins mounts an argument to the effect that such an assessment has but one dimension, namely that of probability. This is a very important argument of the book, since it is here that Dawkins sets the scene for all of the other arguments in favor of atheism that he presents.  The main point being made is that all opinions regarding religious beliefs can be neatly plotted on to a probability-ascription scale, and in this way Dawkins finds himself able to discredit the classic position of agnosticism, famously supported by, e.g., Russell and several of the logical empiricists. In one simple sweep, he thus creates the polarised situation of "either you're with us or you're against us": Regarding a "belief in God" (I'll soon get to what that may be), either you plot yourself on the end of the scale between 0 and 0.5, thus being an atheist, or you position yourself between 0.5 and 1, thus being a theist, but also in need of arguments for your probability ascription (this while the atheist merely needs to disprove those arguments to justify his probability ascription). The only room for a sort of agnostic position given in this scheme is the 50/50 probability-ascription and this position, as Dawkins correctly notes, is a severely vulnerable one. I, however, would like to add that it actually doesn't merit to be called an agnostic position in the first place. Let me explain.

There certainly is a probability-version of agnosticism when looking shallowly on, e.g., the logical empiricist's position that neither the affirmation nor the denial of deities and other supernatural or metaphysical entities can be supported by rational arguments. However, the reason why the logical empiricist's held this position goes deeper; holding out the incomprehensibility (in terms of lack of a unique set of empirical truth-conditions) of all descriptive claims referring to concepts of this sort. This comes close to my own relation to claims of this type: I usually simply don't understand what it is that I am supposed to confirm or deny. This goes for the deities described in various scriptures, as well as those figuring in the many so-called proofs of the existence of God. The propositions are simply not precise and informative enough for me to be able to operationalise their truth-conditions (to be a bit technical), i.e. to identify what exactly I need to investigate in order to get hold of arguments logically connected to these propositions (observe that I'm not assuming a hard-boiled empiricist epistemology here!). So, I'm sorry, Richard Dawkins, I'm afraid that I cannot place myself on your probability ascription scale with regard to claims regarding the existence of God. And I very much wonder if Dawkins really would be able to present any claim presented by any religious believer capable of being so placed on the basis of scientific evidence. That is, with one notable exception that serves as a spring-board over to my next point: Some people do seem to make extremely precise religious claims, such as some of the nuttier creationists, that in detail presents an alternative natural history of the universe, earth and humanity - I'm quite happy to adopt the atheist position there. But, then again, these people are not very representative of religious people in general. So, one might ask, what would be so representative?

An old friend of mine used to describe herself as believing in God. When asked what she meant by that more exactly, she started to describe a very old, bearded man with a kind smile and warm eyes who was sitting on top of a cloud looking down at her. I asked, pointing at the sky: "Do you mean that you think that there really is such a person sitting up there on one of those clouds?". She answered: "Not really, but I like to think about that, it's important for me to muster up that image in my mind now and then, it gives me calm and reassurance". This sort of answer, which I have been receiving repeatedly when asking people identifying themselves as having a religious belief or faith about what their belief consists in, takes me over to the next part of a rational analysis of the religion-atheist antagonisms. This part puts into question whether the atheist really gets it right when assuming religious believers to hold beliefs in the strict, technical sense needed for the atheist arguments to be relevant. So, what then may be involved when people utter statements or sentences containing words like "God" and "exists", that philosophers and scientists are prone to interpret  very literally – as conveying an ambition to make a very precise description of reality?

With this question, I finally arrive at that which was declared as the subject of this little essay: the concept of religious belief. I've already argued that, to the extent that the sentences used for communicating such a belief really expresses the affirmation of a descriptive proposition (that is, a semantic entity with truth-conditions), the object of that proposition is as a rule (but with notable and ridiculous exceptions) so unclear that its truth-value is impossible to assess on rational grounds. What I now add to this suggestion is the idea that, actually, these sentences very seldom express such affirmations – at least not in the simple way needed for the atheist position to be easily confirmed.

This is no news, of course, to people involved in the empirical study of religion as a human and social phenomenon - so-called religious studies. Rather, from this perspective, the idea of applying one single identifier of what makes for a religious belief is generally taken to be a misnomer – religion and religiosity is preferred to be analysed as a complex notion, where the various constituents falling under the notion are at best united by something reminding of the Wittgensteinian idea of family resemblance. Nevertheless, some chief ideas perspectives can be broken out and systematically analysed. However, among these we will not find the idea of religious belief necessarily involving the affirmation of a descriptive proposition conjecturing the existence of something transcendent or non-natural. This since, if expressions of religious beliefs are to be taken literally, as expressing the affirmation of some descriptive proposition, such an interpretation needs to include also religious ideas that don't include such elements, but quantify over (and involving the worship of) natural phenomena, systems, regularities, etcetera. To the extent that, on such an interpretation, a religious belief can be given a clear descriptive content, it may be assessed rationally in terms of probability. However, as observed earlier, when involving reference to transcendent or non-natural objects, these are as a rule too poorly defined to make such an assessment possible. So interpreted, therefore, it seems to me that the rational view is that religious beliefs are either mostly false (attributing features to nature which are clearly not there, such as plans and wants to mountains or planets), or impossible to assess in terms of truth and falsity (this truly agnostic position, I claim, would apply to Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike under this interpretative scheme). In other words, the atheist – new or old – seems to me to have a problem of rationally justifying his/her position here.

Another way, to try to separate religious belief from other beliefs – still assuming that "belief" is here interpreted as the affirmation of a descriptive proposition – is to emphasise the nature of the conviction involved in the holding of the belief. When atheists, humanists, skeptics talk about what's irrational about religious belief, it is often underscored how religious believers seem to be unmoved by reason. In fact, within some religions the idea of faith is celebrated to involve exactly that: the believing in something in spite of apparently strong reasons to the contrary. Now, obviously, to the extent that religious belief actually involves this element, it is indeed being targeted by the atheist lines of argument. However, so is all other examples of dogmatic belief, be it political, scientific, or what have you. Moreover, religious belief that is not dogmatic seems to stay untouched by this way of characterising religion, e.g., strong traditions within Christianity where the notion of doubt is as essential to the faith as that of belief.

However, the empirical study of religion also presents a number of other ways of conceptualising the phenomena captured by the words "religion" and "religiosity". One of these, not sursprisingly, is the expressivist interpretation: rather than affirming descriptions, being religious is about liking certain thoughts, practices and social contexts bound together in a package, and religious beliefs simply expresses this liking. The description of her religious belief given by my old girlfriend referred to above seems to fit rather well here. And, under this interpretation, religious beliefs have no truth-conditions, so there is nothing to affirm or deny. A related interpretation that indeed gives religious beliefs truth-conditions, is the subjectivist, where the belief is taken to be a description of the mental states of the holder of the belief. This seems to be a rather common way of being a religious believer in contemporary forms of religiosity found in many developed countries; a person has experiences of particular profoundness regarding a unity, meaning or even beauty of a certain realm of reality (not seldom nature) and gives this experience the name "God". However, for an atheist to falsify a religious belief understood in this way,  a very different arsenal of arguments than those commonly mounted is needed. What would be needed is an argument disproving the actual presence of the described state of mind, or the naming of that state of mind. On this interpretation, atheism is probably a very weak position, and most religious beliefs are probably true.

There is a further interpretation that come close to the example of subjectivism above, but that cannot be classified as either subjectivist or expressivist (but neither as the affirmation of a descriptive proposition conjecturing the existence of something transcendent). When asking people who describe themselves as religious what is involved in their belief, I've often encountered descriptions of familiar phenomena that I find myself to be highly sympathetic to, with the slight difference of not using words like "God" to summarise them. This is not the case of people merely expressing or describing private mental states, they are talking about things "out there". On my understanding what goes on in  these cases is that a person senses that there is some sort of order in or explanation of phenomena that he or she is unable to fathom (again, often regularities or structures in nature) and gives the unknown order/explanation the name "God". There are probably further explanation of why they choose that particular name (while I and others don't), but the bare bones of the religious belief here seems to be this act of naming, so maybe nominalism would be a good term for this particular variety (not to be confused with nominalism in metaphysics or the philosophy of language). Again, unless an atheist can produce an argument to the effect that this naming violates some rationally prescribed rules, most religious beliefs interpreted in this way are probably true (especially if viewed from the perspective of science).

All of these attempts to make the notion of a religious belief more precise concentrate their clarifying efforts to the semantic content of the belief, or closely related mental states of the believer. However, an increasingly popular analytical take on religion and religiosity employed within religious studies is what we may call the functionalist one. Roughly, this perspective tries to understand religion as a social phenomenon rather than as a worldview (much as science studies look at science), and as a result it is the pragmatics rather than the semantics of religious belief that comes into focus. The functionalist analysis of religion goes something like this: some complexes of customs, practices, institutions etc. are called religions by the people involved in them. To understand these complexes as social phenomena we need to look at the various functions they perform for these people, and this goes for the various parts of the complexes as well. Let's start by looking at religion generally, using these spectacles, thus asking what religions are for.

Some of the answers to that question – such as Marx's and Engels' famous characterisation of religion as the opiat of the people –  concentrate on overarching social and/or societal functions. But since what I try to understand at the moment is not so much how religions affect societies and history, but what is involved in a person holding a religious belief, I will put that perspective aside for the moment and instead ask what function utterances of statements we normally take to convey religious beliefs have. Some of it, I presume, has already been touched on when describing the expressivist analysis earlier. However, in the context of religious belief in relation to religions seen as social complexes of the sort just outlined, it is obvious that religious belief is about more than expressing the mere liking of such a complex. Rather, I would suggest, although expressing such liking is a part of the pragmatics of religious belief, there is a salient social dimension to this liking. It's not only that the believer likes his/her religion (i.e., the complex of customs, practices and institutions in question), the belief also expresses a commitment to it and, I would suggest, a sense and signal of belonging to the group of people that like and are committed to the same religion. The function of such signals are mainly to coordinate groups of people in joint social practices and to hold these practices together over time. So far, religious belief is no different in this respect than a large number of other linguistic behaviors, such as cheering for your team, singing the national anthem, saying those things that are supposed to be said at family gatherings, and so on. For a functionalist, to get a more specific idea about religious belief the analysis has to be complemented by a look at what functions the religion in question is performing for the religious believer. This, of course, may vary a great deal. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the following functions are among the more central, playing a key role in attracting people to religions and holding them together over time: confidence and reassurance, social security, belonging and togetherness, moral guidance and a sense of meaningfulness or purpose.

One may note, of course, that all these goods may be attained through the participation in social complexes normally not called religions. However, from a functionalist point of view, this difference regarding commonly applied terminology is a shallow one and of minor concern. Rather, what we learn is that those social complexes normally called religions are far from alone in performing a religious function for people. In fact, this serves to partially explain some of the other aspects of religious belief touched on earlier, such as expressivism, subjectivism or nominalism. Thus, from a functionalist perspective, it becomes rather difficult to separate statements normally taken to express religious beliefs from other statements expressing the liking of, commitment to, and a signal of belonging in relation to any sort of social complex that performs the typical religious functions for those attached to it. This can be a sports team, a political party, a societal system or organisation, your neighborhood, and so on.

Obviously, atheism, when analysed from this point of view, becomes a rather incomprehensible position, since, for the functionalist, atheism may be as much a religious belief as deism/theism. In fact, lots of statements of committed atheists on forums for atheists, "humanists", "skeptics", "rationalists" and such confirm that this is actually the case – in the case of Humanism (the institutionalised movement), not surprisingly, since it markets itself as a secular religion. One of the issues frequently discussed in these contexts is namely how a person who do not affirm any descriptive proposition regarding the existence of something transcendental can still have beliefs and experiences that makes life meaningful, confer a sense of unity, belonging, and so on. Religiosity in the functionalist sense is obviously as important for atheists as it is for deists/theists.

So, where do I land after this long flight? Well, obviously, atheism is a relevant position with regard to religious beliefs adequately interpreted as affirmations of descriptive propositions. However, except in the case of very precise such propositions, atheism would seem to be quite weakly supported in comparison to bona fide agnosticism (not the half-baked Dawkins version, that is). In one case (subjectivism), deism/theism seem to have stronger support than both agnosticism and atheism. What is more, though, regarding many cases of religious belief, and many ways of explicating what religious belief is about, atheism seems to be plainly beside the point and, according to the functionalist reading, even paradoxical. Of course, this does in no way imply deism/theism to be a more confirmed position. On the contrary, what we see is that deism/theism seem to have very little to do with matters of the truth and falsity of propositions aiming at describing the world, and when they have, agnosticism or (in some uncommon cases) atheism has the upper hand of rational support.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Addendum on the Right to Die Comfortably

I recently reported on an important clarification of Swedish policy regarding patients who want to terminate life-supporting treatment and also receive effective palliation, i.e. an unequivocal affirmation of such a right. Today, Dagens Nyheter, my country's leading newspaper, reports that the woman who had appealed to the National Board of Health and Welfare for this clarification had her respiratory treatment terminated after having been sedated and, as an effect, passed away on Wednesday – all on her own request. Before that, she sent a text-message to Dagens Nyheter expressing her satisfaction with the decision of the NBHW.

The comments so far have been humble and restrained, and the the Ethics Delegation of the Swedish Society of Medicine took the opportunity to sensibly distance itself from the unfruitful lingo of "active" and "passive" euthanasia, stating that terminating a treatment has nothing to do with killing people in the legal sense.

However, Dagens Nyheter itself gets it wrong in its comment when saying that this is a radical policy shift. It is not. As described in my earlier blog on this, respecting patient's wishes not to undergo life-supporting treatment in combination with affirming their right to effective palliation has been accepted practice for about a decade until a recent legal case (as yet to be decided on). The comment also gets it wrong when making analogies to a case some years back, when a paralysed man requested physician-assisted suicide, was declined this and then ended his own life at the well-known suicide clinic in Switzerland. The crucial difference is that this man was not undergoing any sort of life-supporting treatment, and the clarified policy is thus not applicable to that case. Until anything else is decided, the received custom of viewing the assistance to suicide as incompatible with acceptable medical practice will prevail.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Reflections from a just inbroken RAE'er

As responsible for the management of my department's research organisation and activities, yesterday afternoon I submitted the last in a string of reports in my, my department's and - indeed - my university's first Research Assessment Exercise - better known in Commonwealth academia as the RAE (customary, it appears, pronounced with progressing volume, an emphasis on the "E" and a salient tone of despair). Having thus been aware of this sort of thing as an  abstract concept through my many UK academic friends' desperate huffings and puffings and hissings and cursings over the years, it was with some awe that I set out to take on the task laid on us all by our Vice Chancellor. Technically, it all started just before christmas last year and technically it's not over until February or something next year, with some external panel's making site-visits during fall, but the heavy load has been loaded. So, I thought it worth some while to share my reflections on this phenomenon and this journey with its many side-turns. Don't take some of the more sarcastic passages personally. Take it as a piece of self-therapy, a tongue-in-cheek provocation, or even as a sublime proposal.

RED-10, as my university's RAE has been dubbed (and it has indeed made many eyes - albeit slightly more than just ten - both red and sore staring at countless excel files with microscopic entries and fields) is not, it should be made clear to those familiar with the UK system, a part of a funding scheme. It has nothing to do with the regular system for allocating research funds to or within universities (rather, Sweden is just now launching a purely quantitative performance-driven scheme to that effect). Instead, RED-10 was initiated apparently as an effect of the university senior management's disappointment at the outcome of a number of huge project-funding races during the last 10 years. The cause is thus rather clear. However, the intention has not been clearly stated, although I would be very surprised if the result of our RAE was not used by the Vice Chancellor to make some changes in the system for the allocation of research funds, special supports, etcetera - quite probably changes that have been on the list for some time but where objective arguments and, perhaps, guts have been missing.

The initial tasks to undertake were quite straightforward: secure the quality of publication reporting in the publication database, and reporting other accomplishments by individual researchers (such as keynote speeches, visiting fellowships, prizes, review activity, and so on). I had contact with my counterparts at many other departments, as well as the RED-10 office and the people running the publication database continuously during this time, and I was really surprised at how common it seemed to be that very privileged senior researchers and chaired or full professors more or less went on strike. And these where simple tasks with plenty of time given before deadline - just go to the database, check your stuff and click a button, then take out your CV and calendar and fill in the blanks in the "other accomplishment form". Took me about 2 hours in total, and I had quite a handful to report. Instead, these people either closed down communications or spent their time authoring long emails (at first pompous and gradually more and more sobbing in tone) about how horrible they were treated to have to do such a thing - time that, it takes no professor to calculate, could have been spent on having this little thing over and done with, and still have a slot over for pestering their colleagues with a sob-mail or two.

Now, some of these, as a rule very well paid, very high status people, with a freedom allocated within their job that others would just dream about, seemed to want to make some sort of ideological stand out of their attitude: it was preposterous that such a meaningless thing should force them to lay to a side for a moment their "regular tasks" (this being what they themselves preferred to do). Besides communicating the very interesting attitude of someone employed to do a job that they want to have the world but are not willing to give as much as a crumb, this reason is still so bad that it makes one wonder what all those years spent on advanced education really accomplished. I've already mentioned the obvious irrationality of the pomp-/sob-mail syndrome, but it doesn't end with that. One elementary thing you learn as an academic and a researcher is to make clear distinctions and apply these consistently in your work. Now, it is most certainly open for debate whether the RAE is worthwhile. But given the fact that your university has decided to do one, your department is in the position that if it does not do its part well, it and its staff will suffer as a result. This is no different from some law you might not agree with, or some increased tax you might have preferred not to pay. The elementary distinction I had presumed all higher educated people to have learned relating to this is that between fighting the policy and making yourself and other people into a pointless victim of the policy. These high and full of themselves professors may, of course, criticise the RAE, and they may fight its initiation as well as its application to further policy making. However, just going on strike accomplishes nothing more than the very opposite of what they strive for: less room for research, less academic freedom. In addition, it undercuts the opportunities of their less senior colleagues by making their research environment come out in a less favorable light than necessary. It makes you wonder, doesn't it, if it all boils down to the "I don't want to, I don't want to, I don't want to!" of the spoilt, hysterical child, or is it perhaps fear?

The heaviest part of the RAE was doubtlessly the self-evaluations that departments were tasked to submit. The whole exercise was constructed so that here one couldn't do what academic units usually do when evaluating themselves; writing a few pages about how great they are and how fantastic everything is going, it's just that we're short of funds! This is no different from all universities containing all these potential Nobel prize winners as soon as it is time to request funds on that level. However, since the external panels will have all the hard data on external funding, publication, other accomplishments, staff lists, etcetera, balloons of that sort would be pricked to exploded instantly. This made the work difficult, since most academic units house quite a number of people who are not star researchers - but usually very important for a number of other reasons - at the same time as the academic culture makes everyone feel worthless unless they are counted as star researchers. Pondering the obvious fact that even most universities don't house many bona fide star researchers (if any), this collective mentality of academia is obviously irrational. However, it is in place and for someone in my position, the RAE made it necessary to confront the hurdles it presents. To my surprise, despite some glitches having mainly to do with me and the rest of the management underestimating the task, the process turned out to be very educating for everyone involved and, I stretch myself to claim, actually to great benefit for our research. This was of special value in my department, which is the result of a recent merger and, thus, hosting several disciplines without much of a shared history. The RAE actually helped us to form a clear idea about ourselves as a unit, our strong parts and connections, and where new connections can be made to make less strong parts stronger. It remains to be seen if the external panels will agree with our analysis, of course, but even if they don't, to walk this mile actually took us somewhere. And this is not just me talking, several of our professors and other seniors took active part in this work a drew similar conclusions.

This said, I must at the same time declare my sincere sympathy with my UK colleagues, who are forced to do this sort of thing not just now and then, but as a regular, necessary part of the funding scheme. It does makes sense in large organisations like universities to stir the pot every now and then, especially research focused universities, which due to the nature of this practice cannot be as tightly controlled as, for instance, schools. However, having the soup slopping about continuously appears to me to be of doubtful value, except perhaps for the countless bureaucrats that can collect a paycheck for keeping the pot boggling by its handles. I'm aware that part of the rationale for the UK system is to have not only performance-driven resource allocation, but a fair such system. But I doubt that this is accomplished, unless it is to the expense of the very point of having a performance-driven system in the first place, especially if you count in all those paychecks for running the system that could instead have funded research....

So, RAE - fine! Regular RAE, I'm skeptic, unless the intervals are made long enough for the sort of general need of organisations to be disturbed kicks in.