‘Science is not for scientists, but for the world’

This is an article from a Belgian magazine, Knack – all copyright is theirs. I’m just posting it here, because Hannah Arendt (“The banality of evil“) is a fascinating person and I think this article is important enough to be shared in English.


‘In times of rapidly increasing polarization, it is especially important not to rely on ‘gut feelings’, but to base yourself as much as possible on findings from high-quality research’, write Rectors Caroline Pauwels (VUB), Herman Van Goethem (UAntwerp), Rik Van de Walle (UGent) and Luc Sels (KU Leuven). In this contribution they explain what the Hannah Arendt Institute stands for, after the N-VA and Vlaams Belang called on the Flemish Parliament to stop the subsidies.

‘Science is not for scientists, but for the world’
Hannah Arendt

In the Internal Governance, Equal Opportunities and Civic Integration Committee, in addition to much praise, the Hannah Arendt Institute was hit hard by Flemish representatives Nadia Sminate (N-VA) and Sam Van Rooy (Vlaams Belang) yesterday. During the presentation of the functioning of the institute, a press release was sent out in which Nadia Sminate (N-VA) described the institute as “a glorified communication agency of the left-liberal vision of urbanity and citizenship” and called for subsidies to be stopped. As rectors of the four universities involved in the Hannah Arendt Institute (VUB, UAntwerp, UGent & KU Leuven), we regret this tendentious description of the Hannah Arendt Institute and we believe it is of great importance to clarify what the Institute stands for.

Academic citizenship

Science is not for scientists, but for the world. That is why universities try to actively disseminate their knowledge and insights. With the Hannah Arendt Institute, for example, we want to inspire professionals, policymakers and citizens to get started with scientific insights into diversity, urbanity and citizenship. A solid scientific basis also contributes to a thorough dialogue with such themes.

Science is not for scientists, but for the world.

New scientific insights can offer great social added value. In the behavioural and social sciences, the path from science to policy development and concrete practice is often difficult and long. Knowledge in such disciplines too often remains underused, perhaps because its application sometimes bumps into ideological walls, preconceptions or even prejudices. We consider it our task to draw attention to that knowledge. The Hannah Arendt Institute has this ambition to disseminate knowledge outside the university walls, more specifically on themes such as diversity, urbanity and citizenship. Because that knowledge matters. Because she is important.

Need for progressive insight

Just with ‘difficult’ social themes, there is a great need for progressive insight. In conversations about complex topics such as migration or free speech, disinformation and ideological bias all too often prevent the possibility of arriving at a workable solution. In that case, sound empirical findings are a good basis and an opportunity to find each other. The opposite is also true. A lack of scientific diligence and in-depth knowledge is a breeding ground for toxic polarization. Hannah Arendt spent her whole life trying to understand what is incomprehensible, because we ‘have our noses at it’. She asks us to think about what we are ‘doing’. She passionately advocated ‘thinking for oneself’, sometimes against friends and prejudices. Advances in scientific understanding and permanent dialogue help us do this.

The social need is there. The scientific research results are also there. Together with the Hannah Arendt Institute, we are working on valorisation: making scientific insights valuable for society. At the Hannah Arendt Institute we provide citizens with knowledge and research results through podcasts, videos and events. We reach professionals with targeted training. We address policy makers through reports and round tables, always with an openness to dialogue and respectful debate. Because especially in the hands of those groups, the knowledge becomes impactful.

With the Institute, we expressly reach out to civil society and to citizens who are ‘in practice’ and who want to make a constructive contribution to the development of society. We can learn from their findings and thus respond to their questions for further research.

The Hannah Arendt Institute is a link between university and society. The Institute’s employees are investigating how you can strengthen the social fabric in sports practice. They investigate how polarization, disinformation and hate speech influence our reference and action framework and advise local authorities and other government services to respond appropriately. They pool knowledge about how cities and municipalities deal with today’s complex challenges and help build communities of practice to inspire other cities and let them learn from each other.

Gut feeling or science

Does the confrontation with a new insight sometimes hurt? Yes, and changing your mind isn’t always easy. It grinds and sometimes pulls to adopt a new idea, change policy, or try out a new method. In times of rapidly increasing polarization it is extra important not to rely on ‘gut feelings’, but to base yourself as much as possible on findings from high-quality research. Universities should not sit back and counter disinformation and feed society with the also constantly evolving insights from scientific research.

With an organization such as the Hannah Arendt Institute, we take on that responsibility to bring our knowledge to the world, for everyone who wants to use it. Of course, this knowledge cannot be taken or abandoned. It is the basis for dialogue, debate and practical training. The Institute is, as it were, an academic form of citizenship. We want to look beyond ideological boundaries and come up with solutions together with other social actors. The world needs that more. Not less.


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