Beeld: Vijselaar en Sixma

How should we use the knowledge from a crisis?

A large, shocking event can sometimes act as a perfect mirror that exposes a system’s imperfections. Such an awareness is the first step towards change. ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste!’ How does science bring that famous plea, ascribed to Winston Churchill, into practice?

Beeld: Vijselaar en Sixma
Text: Merijn van Nuland, image: Vijselaar en Sixma

The lesson of 9/11: don’t forget the bigger picture

‘In our discipline, you have a generation from before the attacks on 11 September 2001 and a generation that came after that’, says Edwin Bakker, Professor of Terrorism and Counterterrorism at Leiden University. ‘In the 1990s, in particular, our discipline was very small, because we were in a relatively quiet period with little political violence. Suddenly, all of that changed. Also for me personally, because as a result of the attacks, I gained a position at the Clingendael Institute.’

‘It was a time in which our field was booming. The number of terrorism researchers grew explosively and with that the number of academic journals and publications about the subject. Furthermore, the focus shifted. In particular, following the murder of Theo van Gogh and the attacks in Spain, the attention switched to home-grown terrorism. After all, these were their own citizens who had radicalised and were capable of murdering somebody for their ideals. There was also a lot of demand from the government for applicable knowledge, which led to some researchers focussing on policy-oriented research.

There was a lack of studies embedding the details in the wider literature

Edwin Bakker

That also has disadvantages. If you perform a consultancy job for a government body, then you are often limited to a detail. For example, after the attack by the right-wing extremist Anders Breivik there was much attention for lone wolves and how you could recognise them. However, there was often a lack of studies that answered the deeper questions and embedded the details in the wider literature. How is the current right-wing extremism different from that of the past? And are the underlying motives comparable with those of other perpetrators of terrorism such as left-wing extremists or jihadists? If everybody focuses on the details, then you tend to lose sight of the big picture.’

‘So my lesson for the coronavirus crisis would be: do not examine the pandemic from a strictly medical perspective, but from the wider perspective of all disciplines. You can see there is a need to explain this crisis from a historical and philosophical perspective in order to see the bigger picture. So that should be funded too. Moreover, grant applications should be processed quickly so that these questions can be answered when the answers are needed most. It’s good that NWO acted quickly and published several coronavirus calls straightaway.’

The credit crisis demonstrated: not every disruption leads to change

‘I can still clearly remember the start of the credit crisis and the collapse of the Lehman Brothers bank in 2008’, says Irene van Staveren, Professor of Pluralist Development Economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Of course, I was shocked, yet at the same time, I also had a strong feeling that something like this had to happen sometime. Economists outside of the mainstream had already predicted that. However, things were tougher for the majority of my orthodox colleagues: they witnessed the collapse of the free market, a world that they had unswervingly believed in up until then.’

‘Of course, the fact that the majority of economists failed to see this crisis coming says something about our economics research and education. For decades there has been a strong focus on the free market economy, with the central concept that the market regulates itself. The theories of John Maynard Keynes and Hyman Minsky – who both called for more government interventions – are considered far less and were merely treated as historical curiosities.’

‘You’d expect that the credit crisis would have led to a radical change in how we think about the economy because the self-regulating capacity of the economy proved to be highly limited. However, nothing could have been further from the truth.' 

You’d expect that the credit crisis would have led to a radical change in how we think about the economy

Irene van Staveren

'Adherents of the free market continue to dominate academia, and we still fail to tap into the rich history of ideas within economics.’ I think that we must expand the curriculum to prevent a repetition of 2008. First-year economic students must be taught the entire palette of economic theories. And it should be made a genuinely mature discipline, something which has been the case in sociology for a long time. That gives more freedom of thought and prevents students from immediately being sent in a certain direction.’

‘The coronavirus crisis is different. Whereas the financial crisis in 2008 emerged from within the system, the coronavirus crisis has been caused by an external factor, namely a lethal virus. Nevertheless, this crisis also exposes the vulnerability of the market economy. Shareholders continually demand dividend and an increase in value, as a result of which many companies retain inadequate buffers to cope with a sudden shock. And that is all too obvious now.’

The coronavirus crisis has revealed that coordination is the Achilles heel of science

‘A vast number of interesting things are happening, and you can see that researchers from a wide range of disciplines are doing their best to contribute something to solving this huge problem’, says Professor of Psychology Denny Borsboom from the University of Amsterdam. ‘Not just from the medical perspective but also, for example, from the discipline of psychology that I work in. This willingness leads to many new research idea. For instance, in a short space of time, I’ve learned a lot about the use of models in epidemiology.’

‘The coronavirus crisis has also clearly exposed the problem of science: a lack of coordination. Well-intended initiatives are popping up all over the place. My dean recently itemised which of us are working on corona-related research. Within our faculty alone, he discovered that there were forty research projects underway and yet we scarcely knew of each other’s existence. So it’s hardly surprising there is so much overlap. That’s why I set up dataversuscorona.com, where coronavirus researchers can obtain support with their analyses. But soon after that, I discovered three or four projects that were very similar.’

‘This sort of problem arises because of how the science system works. We’re used to working from the bottom up: the initiative for a research project usually lies with the researcher. Under normal circumstances, that system functions just fine because there is an awful lot to investigate. During a crisis, however, you are all focusing on the same problem, and then you automatically end up on each other’s turf.'

During a crisis, you all focus on the same problem, and then you can end up on each other's turf

Denny Borsboom

'I think we need an alternative science model that can operate during crisis periods. What would a dictator do, for example, if he knew that a meteorite was heading towards the earth? He would bring together the smartest minds in the country to come up with a solution, all hands on deck. That’s the attitude we need now, and that can only happen if somebody takes the lead and commissions research projects in an almost military manner so that we can rapidly answer the most important questions without falling over each other. Therefore, for some time now, I’ve been calling for a Dutch Research Platform that could assume such a directive role.’

Onderzoek 4. Aanpassingsvermogen