The philosopher Jan Patočka is something of a national hero in the Czech Republic, and deservedly so. A teacher of Vaclav Havel, he was, in addition to one of the most important Central-European thinkers of the twentieth century, a martyr to the struggle for freedom in the Czech Republic during Communist rule. In 1977, at the age of 70, he died from a brain haemorrhage after a prolonged police interrogation. The reason for this treatment at the hands of the authorities was that Patočka had signed what was known as Charta 77, a document, which called upon the Czechoslovakian government to uphold article seven of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, of which it was a signatory, and which demanded respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.
Darian Meacham is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of the West of England, Bristol, where he specializes in phenomenology and political philosophy. He is the author of several articles on Merleau-Ponty, Jan Patočka and political philosophy, and also blogs on Patočka and European politics at www.post-europe.org. Patočka's place in Czech and European history has to a large degree been made possible by the tireless and often courageous work of his former students in Prague. In the truest Socratic spirit of philosophy and science, which Patočka made the subject of so much of his reflection, they have worked hard to disseminate his work and ideas, first through illegal pamphlets (Samizdat), and then following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, in European Universities and centres of intellectual life like Charles University in Prague and the Institution of Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, who host an annual Patočka lecture.
One of the most important themes of Patočka's later work was what he called "radical over-civilisation" (Nadcivilisace in Czech). In his posthumously published working notes, he succinctly defines this idea as the "clumping of all forms of life under the perilous form of industrial productivity".[i] What he meant by this was that in modern industrial society all forms of life and of thought were becoming increasingly valued only in accordance with a scale of efficiency determined by the model of industrial productivity. Patočka's concern was that this European principle of instrumental rationality had serious negative consequences for the possibility of carrying out intellectual inquiry and scientific research in Europe, to the extent that it threatened the spirit of scientific inquiry and philosophical introspection that he thought comprised the very essence of Europe, and its value and potential contribution to the world.
So it seems appropriate to invoke Patočka's name and his legacy in a controversy over the funding of scientific research that is currently taking place in the Czech Republic. As the journal Nature recently reported:
"Scientists in the Czech Republic are up in arms over drastic changes in the national science-funding system that they say will damage basic research in the long term. Starting next year, core funding for Czech universities and research institutes will be allocated according to rigorous metrics. Institutes can obtain ‘points' for a variety of publications and for patents, but also for any software, methods, samples, prototype devices and ‘validated technologies' developed in-house. The government plan, drawn up over the past three years with the goal of increasing the efficiency of research and development, was approved by the Czech cabinet on 29 June. But critics say that the prescribed funding formula gives a grossly distorted picture of the real assets of Czech science, and threatens to destroy its best parts. Ill-defined criteria of ‘innovation' will downgrade the merit of detailed work on books and peer-reviewed papers, they argue, while rewarding impressive sounding concepts and rushed patent applications.[ii] "
The Czech Academy of Sciences argues that the proposed changes will see its budget reduced by 20% in 2010 and up to 45% in future years. The Academy has set up an "emergency website" to inform people about the situation. At the heart of the "emergency" is the concern that these new criteria for research funding, and the impending cuts, will have a devastating impact on the level and quality of fundamental or basic research in the Czech Republic. Fundamental research in the sciences can be understood as research into the workings of the natural, physical, and cultural world that does not have an immediate application, either clinically, industrially, or socially (in terms of policy etc.). In other words, it falls foul of the principles of efficiency and productivity that Patočka warned were coming to dominate all aspects of European life. The understanding is that fundamental research provides the foundation upon which applied research can be carried out, and so is in fact absolutely essential to research that has clinical or industrial application.
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The Czech government is not however on its own in downgrading the status of fundamental research and by doing so putting the applied research that relies upon it also at risk. It has for some time been European policy (on the level of the European commission) to privilege scientific research which is "relevant to the need of European industry", though the European Commission has also made commitments in the past to raising levels of support for basic research.[iii] There is indeed nothing wrong with wanting research to be relevant to industry, or perhaps more ideally, relevant to the concrete improvement of people's lives, but to demand that this be the first principle of scientific research puts the cart before the horse. This was indeed part of the "internal contradiction" of radical over-civilisation that Patočka warned of, and which he thought the European sciences and society as a whole were succumbing to. Patočka's name is often uttered in near hallowed tones in the Czech Republic, and his legacy is often invoked as part of the struggle for freedom in Central and Eastern Europe. Sadly, it seems that his lessons and warnings about the dangers to Europe posed by subsuming all thought under the dictates of industrial productivity are ignored by those who hail him as a national hero and a "European role model" par excellence.
Struggles over funding for scientific research may seem very removed from the everyday lives of most people, especially those suffering in some way or another from the fallout of the financial crisis, or struggling to make ends meet regardless of the current crisis. But Patočka's thought endeavoured to show that there was not a remove, that a world where the value of all things could be reduced to a measure of efficiency or industrial productivity was a world where human needs could be ignored. This is not at all to say that industrial productivity and efficiency are bad things. Only that they must be placed where they belong, behind concerns for human well-being. Fundamental scientific research has played an immensely important role in the improvement of our lives in Europe, both in terms of material gain and the freedoms and liberties that we enjoy in the social and political spheres. As Patočka told his students in the 50's, 60's and 70's, the task now lies with the citizens of Europe to reclaim Europe's scientific and rational legacy. One way that we can do so is by supporting the Czech scientists who are fighting for the future of research in their country.
[i] Jan Patočka, L'Europe après l'Europe, translated from the Czech and German by Erika Abrams and Edited by Marc Crépon, Lagrasse: Éditions Verdier, 2007, p. 265
[ii] Nature, v. 460 (July 9, 2009), p. 157
[iii] cf., COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION EUROPE AND BASIC RESEARCH, Brussels, 14.1.2004 COM(2004) 9 final