These days have been hard for all those involved in science and education in Serbia. At least, for those whose brains are capable of free thought. First, the largest university in the country dropped more than 100 spots on the Shanghai ranking. The rector said that this was not a big deal, and then the government offered the perfect explanation – one mathematician has left Serbia and moved to Saudi Arabia. Because of this transfer, Belgrade University lost points, quotations, scores, etc. If this is true, if our university depends that much on one scientist’s quotations, I’m honestly not sure if we should even have one.
But, I would like to talk about something else now. About the government and everything this latest episode can tell us about it. Let’s start with the government’s view of problems. Simply – it has none! Radenovic’s move is the only problem. Which directly implies the solution. Simple! Just like in any dictatorship. Call Radenovic, give him a laptop, maybe even invite him for coffee. See if we have some money in the budget to buy a spot on the Shanghai list. Who’s the best person for that job? Sinisa Mali, of course! Not only will he manage to buy everything we need for that list, but this will also be a slap in the face to all those who claim that his PhD was plagiarized. If we get Radenovic himself to confirm this, problem solved!
This “dedicated budget line” will solve a couple more problems. The president said that we will “use this line to pay all those who wish to write for Serbia”. This will allow us to buy even more players, besides Radenovic. Sarcevic counted 12 of them! All of them have left Serbia and work at universities abroad, it’s true, but we have a solution for that, too: the president suggested that we give them 1,000-1,500 euros each to publish their works for us, instead of the universities they actually work for, which provided them with laboratories, working conditions, laptops, offices, air conditioning, etc. This is how the president sees science: like a football fan. You’re Serbian – you write for Serbia. How else could it be, in his mind? This is also how he sees employment contracts: you have a contract with that university, but you can just sign a fake one that makes it seem like you’re also working for us. Simple!
However, “Faster, better, stronger” doesn’t work when it comes to science and education. You can plagiarize faster, intimidate stronger. But the “better” part just won’t work. Because science and education are direct opposites to the essence of this government. First, their results depend on the whole system and not the current will and caprice, or whether a single person is signed to the team. They depend on patiently developing a complex system, long and hard work, complicated questions and answers. In this system, you spend years writing a single book which may or may not bring quotations and points and which almost certainly won’t result in a press conference and cameras being pointed at you. But it will be crucial for the demanding and slow process of developing scientific knowledge.
This is why this government despises science and education so much. Their principles are mutually exclusive. This is why only 0.3% of the Serbian budget is allocated to science, which is the lowest in Europe (compared to the EU average of 2%, 3.3% in Sweden, and 1% in Croatia and Slovenia). This is why the project cycle from 2010 is still being implemented in Serbia, which means that our science has been working on the same topics for 10 years, in the middle of a global scientific revolution. This is why the new law on science has thrown out young researchers from the University. This is why no one wants to rank Serbian universities. This is why plagiarism is a desirable behavior.
This is also why the president makes fun of the elite. Because whoever takes their jobs in science or at the university seriously is undermining the system of simple questions and short answers. This is why university employees have become a common target of government attacks. Radenovic understood this very well and, by putting himself in the spotlight, insulted all scientists by calling them lazy. This gave the president an opportunity for touchdown. He used Radenovic to present his deep dichotomy between the elite and the plebs: “I offered him an office and he said: what do I need an office for? This is a man who was born in the village of Gornji Brestovac and who is not accustomed to wealth and big offices”.
This is the essence of the ruling ideology and political practice. First, the president is the one to solve the office problem. Second, for the president, an office is a symbol of wealth. Third, this points to the conclusion that if the science is real, if it is ours, it doesn’t need investments, offices, and similar extravagancies. And finally, fourth and most important: the fact that he was born in Gornji Brestovac is presented as the key quality of the scientist that left for greener pastures, and then came back.
In the president’s value system this is the guarantee of belonging to the right people, the people the president represents, and not the deviant kind living in the tram circle in the center of Belgrade. And this egalitarianism is not just a rhetorical figure, or a demagogic discourse. Nor is it just populism. This is precisely the ideological essence that says that progress and development, even if they are embodied in being born in the city or thinking that science requires an office or other appropriate space, are seen as the opposite of what “we” really are, as a sort of internal expatriation, a loss of national essence, identity, as decline and decadence.
This sums up the essence of the ideology which Dobrica Cosic perfectly phrased as “backwardness as advantage”, because only in our backwardness may we remain our own, free from the fake decorations of the developed world. This ideology is dominated by a fear of any kind of change or progress. As long as we stick to this ideology, not only science and the university, but the entirety of Serbia can just lower the blinds and turn off the lights.
Translated by Marijana Simic