Inaguration day

On Obama's inauguration day, I thought I was going to be in the wrong place.

I was banking on seeing the speech live. But instead I was at a celebration for  a very good policy research organisation – one of the many in South Africa that take it for granted that what research is about is making a difference and that their research publications should be made available free online for everybody. It is one of those very South African research organisations that have became a source of high quality research interventions to inform development in a democratic South Africa.  

The occasion was the launch as  an Institute  of  PLAAS – the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.  The acronym is wonderful – for non-South Africans, you need to know that 'plaas' is 'farm' in Afrikaans and that is the language of the rural workers in the Western Cape who are a primary focus of  PLAAS's research. The venue was the pool terrace of a hotel near the sea, at a spot where Robben Island is just a short way across the bay, a reminder perhaps of the Mandela inheritance that Obama might draw on.

I arrived at the venue with the Inauguration very much in mind, thinking through how things might change for us with a new US President. Obama's is a very different face in the now gloriously inappositely-named White House, with special meaning for Africa. In the background, the sound effect is the thundering crunch of falling masonry as the mad world of global business falls apart. From the southern tip of Africa, the question is not only how Obama will do as President, particularly in relation to Africa, but also whether the economic crash is going to be hard enough to give him space to help usher in a different and less exploitative world order.

In his interview at Google, while still a candidate, Obama had given us a glimpse of  his vision for a more open way of government, a world in which access to knowledge and information is a guarantee of democratic participation and good governance. 'If you give people good information,' he said, 'they will make good decisions'. Giving good information and making it accessible to the people who need it is what  PLAAS and other research groupings like it do pretty well.
In my naïve way, I believe that this kind of research is in truth the globally competitive cutting edge strength of the South African research endeavour, rather than the journal indexes, journal article counts and the tallying up of citation counts that is used as the metric for valuing South African research. The engaged research carried out by organisations like PLAAS features the combination of high quality and cutting edge basic research with real engagement with the community. As Subbiah Arunachalam would say, scholarly communications need to flow from scholar to scholar, from scholar to farmer, from farmer to farmer and from farmer to scholar. That is one of the things that makes for really good research.

But organisations like PLAAS do face problems in our current research policy environment. This   emerged in the speech of Ben Cousins, the Director of PLAAS He said two things that struck me particularly on US inauguration night. One was that, although the Institute publishes a high volume of quality research in print and on its website and makes sure that this reaches government policy-makers and other stakeholders, PLAAS's researchers are under relentless pressure from the university to publish more and more journal articles in 'accredited' (i.e. indexed) journals in order to attract government publication subsidies. Policy research papers and research reports on development-focused research don't count.

The other piece of information Ben gave us was that the government appears to have taken a strangely wrong-headed direction – as he sees it – in its land rights reform policy and is planning  an empowerment programme that aims to create black empowerment through the sponsoring of large-scale corporate farmers who could operate in a globally competitive market.  

In both of these cases, the values at play are those of  the world that seems to be failing, of the large corporations, with profits and competitiveness as the driving forces. That is all too clear in the land rights reform proposals. However, not all academics recognise that it is this very same global business world that owns and directs the hallowed traditions of journal publication and citation counts that dominate how scholarship is disseminated and how it is valued in South Africa.  After all,  the journals that are most highly rated tend to be those in the hands of large commercial publishers. And the way these are indexed – and hence valued – is in the hands of a single US conglomerate. Thomson Reuters owns the ISI journal indexing system that is treated with such reverence in South African academe and it is Thomson Reuters and no-one else that decides who wins and who loses in this particular game, which journals make the cut and which don't.

What is happening in South African research therefore is that the commercially-driven values of global competitivenesss in exactly the world order that Obama is challenging dominate the academic reward system, marginalising the value-driven research that aims to make a difference, contributing to  national development in precisely the way government says it wants its research investment to deliver.

It turned out that there was a television screen in the venue, so it was with the supporters of PLAAS that I listened to the inauguration speech. There was less of relevance than in his interview at Google, where he talked of the need to provide open access to all aspects of policy making, making medical policy through a consultative process, but 'not letting the pharmaceutical companies buy the table' and expressing the perspective he has as the grandson of a woman living without running water or electricity in rural Kenya. But in the inaugural speech, he did talk of the restoration of 'those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old.' These things are also the values of research centres like PLAAS and not of the global journal publishing system that has grown up in the last 60 years, giving us s remarkably inequitable knowledge regime, where far too much of the really important research that we do is consigned to the margins.