Founding Visions - Professor David Magnusson interviewed by Anne Buttimer#

Prof. David Magnusson, Professor of Psychology, Stockholm University. Founder member and first Vice-President of Academia Europaea 1988-1997.

Transcript of the interview:#

Interview with David Magnusson April 22 2009
Interviewer: Professor Anne Buttimer, Dublin

I: So here we are, still in Stockholm. This is our third interview on the Academia Europaea. We have the great privilege of having with us a founder member, Professor David Magnusson. He was the first vice president and he has been with Academia longer than, at least I think, anyone else in Sweden. Thank you for coming today David, I am really glad that you came and are willing to speak with me. Before discussing Academia and its founding vision, I would like you to talk a little bit about your background, where you come from, what in your upbringing has influenced your career?

D: I was born on a small farm in Sweden’s southern highlands, as the second of five children: four boys and a girl. The way we lived and worked on the farm has meant a lot for me, not only in my private life but also in my scientific work. We always worked together. The way we constantly collaborated founded my view of myself and my place in society. The factor that determined what we would do was nature, whether it was spring, summer, autumn or winter. What we could decide was how we would do it.

I: You knew what was expected of you.

D: Yes, the important element was what was needed to be done. I think that has helped to form my professional life. In an interview I did for the SRCD archive in the US, I was asked whether I had reached my goals in life. I responded: “I have never had any other goals than to do well what I was doing and to complete it.”

I: Yes but I mean you went to school and it wasn’t easy those days, transport wasn’t as efficient as it is nowadays but I think that your experience on the farm was very telling for your whole life and it was a privilege. You come from the same country as Carl von Linné and to have lived in that kind of environment and to be in touch with many diverse objects, as it was, it probably gave you an orientation towards diversity in life as well.

D: Yes, after the village school, I went to the local secondary school. There was no gymnasium in my neighborhood so I chose to apply to a College for Elementary School Teachers. After four years of study there I spent six years as an elementary school teacher. At the end of that period I took the exam that allowed me to go on to university.

I: Ok, but your teaching experience exposed you to children and their development and also different development strategies, didn’t it?

D: Yes, certainly. After the six years as a school teacher, I moved to Stockholm. There I studied for a year at a clinic for problem children and worked for another year as a school psychologist before I went to Stockholm university as a research assistant. Rather soon I was asked to run a course in measurement theory. For each lecture, I wrote what became a chapter in a volume on test theory. It was published by an American publisher and has been translated into a number of languages.

The atmosphere at the department of psychology was dominated by a behavioristic perspective. My main concern in psychological research was and is individuals. How does an individual think, feel, learn, act, and react in a specific situation given the situation conditions? When I expressed this view of psychology as a scientific discipline, I was told that it was scientific prostitution.

I: This must have been during the 60s.

D: Yes. However, my scientific career took a different course, when our research council in 1963 funded a trip to the US. There I encountered a very different scientific world and had the opportunity to meet and talk with some prominent scientists. One of them became a close, life-long friend.

I: Did you find any potential tension between your recognition of the uniqueness of individuals, on one hand, and the need to see them in terms of their differential development and your commitment to measurement, on the other hand. It seems to me that measurement indicates an assumption, many things are in fact measurable but if the person is unique there may be aspects that cannot be measured.

D: Yes, a characteristic feature of the situation in psychological research at that time was a communication gap between what we may designate experimentalists, who knew everything about empirical methods, and those who had what we may call a clinical view. During my time first as secretary and later as president of the Swedish Psychological Association, in the beginning of my university career, I tried to help overcome that gap. My position was and is that there need not to be an opposition between specialists and generalists in a specific field, as long as they are aware of the fact they are trying to understand the same kind of processes.

The holistic principle underlying this proposal was well expressed as long ago as in 1749 by the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linne, when he proposed about nature that “such a relation exists between all parts, that if just one disappeared, the whole would not last”.

I: I know, but I think that it is really important that the experience of diversity and individuals in their context is somehow very, very close to Linné’s “Skånska resa” for example. Everything we wrote about had to be placed in its context and it is temporal and spatial. So I think your development theory is something that gathers a lot of insights along those lines and puts it into a theoretical framework, which I think is absolutely excellent.

So I just wonder if that isn’t continued in your work with Academia Europea and your current science foundation? Because in a way the countries can be seen almost as individuals with their individual traditions and what you are trying to bring together is a collaboration between diverse members, respecting the integrity of each but at the same time seeing a European project. Would you like to speak a little about your work with Academia and even before that, I think, ESF.

D: In 1970 I became a member of the newly organized Swedish Social Science Research Council. In 1977 it was merged with the research council for the humanities, into one for “Social Sciences and Humanities”. For six years, as long as I was a member of the council, l served as vice chairman of the board and for three years as chairman of the executive committee.

Then, in 1983, I became the Swedish member of the council of the European Science Foundation. There I initiated something that played a role in the development of European networks and perhaps I should say a few words about that?

I: Yes, I think because that was very much a Swedish idea wasn’t it?

D: At least we were involved in different ways. Swedish representatives were active in the process from the beginning. The ESF network process had its background in early September 1984, at a meeting in Paris with the ministers of science and education in western Europe. An important role in the discussion was played by Kerstin Niblaeus, who represented Sweden. The politicians discussed the importance of scientific collaboration on the European scene and concluded, wisely enough, that the political bureaucracy was not fitted to shoulder the responsibility for European science policy. As a result, the European Science Foundation took over and invited all science ministries of Western Europe to suggest plans for networks at the European level. In response to the invitation, the Swedish ministry asked me to write a proposal for a network. After a discussion with Kerstin Niblaeus among others, I accepted and wrote a proposal for a network on longitudinal research on individual development. The ministry accepted the proposal and sent it to ESF. The ESF committee for networks, led by Arnold Burgen, suggested the Swedish proposal to be established as the first ESF network and the ESF Council accepted it.

A network committee for longitudinal research on individual development, consisting of prominent scientists from different fields, was established. Eleven countries became involved and financed regular conferences. We had symposia in each of these countries and eight volumes were published by Cambridge University Press.

In 1986 I was elected vice president of ESF and served in that position through 1989. During that period, in early 1986, I was invited to a conference in Berlin. A number of scientists and scholars were invited to the meeting. For a couple of days we discussed in general terms the conditions for scientific progress on the European scene.

I: And that decision was taken in Berlin. Is that right?

D: No, no actual decision was made. At that time in Europe several discussions were in progress about the need for an organization based on individual membership but the Germans did not follow it up in concrete terms. Before Christmas in 1986, Royal Society in London invited a group of 12 scientists and scholars to a meeting initiated by Arnold Burgen, at that time responsible for the Society’s international affairs. The discussions continued in 1987, in meetings led by Arnold Burgen. The Royal Society acted as our host during the whole period and also put an active, experienced secretary, Stephen Cox, at our disposal. He did an excellent job. Let me emphasize here that without Arnold Burgen’s eminent leadership and the continuous support by the Royal Society during the founding process, the Academia Europaea would not exist in its present form.

In January 1988 the important decision was made to found an academy. Arnold Burgen started a morning session by declaring: “Now we must come to a conclusion, we cannot go on like this, only talking about it” and then he asked “Shall we stop here or shall we move forward, take a decision and make something concrete?” I remember the silence that followed; nobody said anything. So I asked for the floor and said “Two points; First, I think that the idea about an organization built on individual membership and excellence has a strong raison d’étre and second, it is time.” Then Brian Flowers, president of London University, went in and supported the idea; nobody argued against. This was the start of a hectic period of preparations for the formal establishment of the Academia in the autumn of 1988.

I: Yes, was Eugen Seibold involved in getting that name of Academia Europaea?

D: Yes, in the role as a member of the initiating committee. At that time he was president of the European Science Foundation, where I served as vice president together with Ruurd van Lieshout and David Spearman. Seibold was not very active in the discussions but did not argue against the foundation of the Academia Europaea. A crucial issue right from the beginning of our discussions was how to draw the line between the territories of the Academia and ESF. A basic difference between the two was that the ESF was an organization of organizations, while the Academia was an organization of individual members. An agreement was reached about the organizations’ respective goals and tasks. The main task for the Academia should be to identify crucial issues for scientific analyses at the European level. If these analyses led to consequences in terms of scientific programs, such activities should be a matter for ESF to discuss. At least as long as I was active, the presidents and vice presidents met regularly and the relations between the two organizations were characterized by respect and esteem.

I left the board of ESF at the annual congress in 1989. I had been asked to stay for another period but I wanted to spend more time with the Academia, since I saw the assets and the contributions it could give to European science.

I: Yes, but your network, was it constituted by individual scientists or was it a collaboration of councils.

D. Neither. As I described before, the decision to start networks was taken by the ESF Council as a response to the political meeting in Paris in 1984. The start of my own network was decided with reference to the Swedish plan.

I: So in a way, it’s what I am trying to get at, as the seeds of the idea of an Academy based on individual membership could be traced perhaps to that idea of the successful networks.

D: In one sense there was a connection, since Arnold Burgen chaired the ESF network committee and later became the leader of the process of founding AE. Let me say here that the organization of the ESF networks was handled in a very cost-effective way.

I: Yes but to return to Academia, since you probably are the best living source of insight into what the grounding visions were, could you repeat a little of what those visions were and how well they have been pursued over the years.

D: In my view, the role of AE on the European scene should not be to duplicate what was already being done well by existing research organizations, such as academies, national research councils or national and international discipline-oriented societies. AE had to define its own niche by identifying common issues on the European scene for which no other organization was responsible or regarded as its territory, i.e. to move to fill a gap and contribute with identifying issues on the European scene that could be the target of theoretical and empirical analyses. In that vision, two areas that met the criteria and could be of common European interest were identified and discussed. The first was basic education. Analyses presented by the OECD and other organizations showed that the quality of basic education differed between European countries and that low quality was a general problem. Careful analyses of this issue were important for two reasons. It could help to improve the quality of scientific work at the national level and higher quality of scientific activities would lead to better conditions for scientific collaboration across national borders.

The second area, that was discussed was concerned with the societal and cultural consequences of the rapidly growing IT market. Technical aspects of this development would be handled by natural sciences and the market. The possible consequences for individuals, societies and cultures of the rapidly growing IT market, which we now have to live with, had not been analyzed to the extent that it deserved, in spite of the importance for European development. In my opinion, it should be a niche for AE to take responsibility for. Since I left the board of AE, my contacts have been rather sparse and my restricted knowledge prevents me from evaluating the activities. One remark only. I have understood that financing, already a problem in AE’s early history, is still a difficulty. We are regularly reminded of the need for financial contributions. In my view, these reminders would be more effective if they were accompanied by a presentation of the visions for which our contributions are needed.

I: Exactly.

D: I remember the first symposium on basic education. It was organized by Torsten Husén, the internationally known educationist, in Stockholm and was financed by the Swedish Riksbanksfonden. The published proceedings were discussed publicly in the old parliament building in Stockholm. Discussions were also held in the Czech parliament and by the European Council.

I: It diffused quickly.

D: It really became what we wanted. From the very beginning, the Academia played a role we had intended. At an early stage Brussels asked us for a state-of–the-art report on DNA research, which at that time was expanding very rapidly. We soon managed to form a group of prominent scientists from different countries in Europe. They got down to work immediately and it was not long before we were able to report back to Brussels. This activity demonstrated the AE’s strength and potentialities. We started in a way that was in line with our vision.

I don’t know all that much about how close the planning of subsequent activities remained to that vision because I left Academia after two periods as a vice president.

I: But to follow up on that idea of getting that synopsis state of the art on a particular theme, was the idea that then that could be suggested as a research project to ESF or to some other research councils or did you just address the EEC with it?

D: The report was sent to the EEC, and that completed our task.

I: OK, and the relationship between the European Academia and the national academies, was there much talk about that or was it simply left to the ALLEA to handle?

D. One of the issues that were discussed during the process of establishing AE was the relations to other European organizations and to national academies. As far as I remember, there were no real problems.

I: Because the national academies, are they not constituted by individual memberships?

D: They are, at least the ones I know about. But we did not want to become a new administrative body for all national academies.

I: So you’ve been at it from the very beginning, so you understand what the vision was and how do you feel it has succeeded over the years? In promoting that idea, you know? Has it been successful do you think?

D: I don’t want to be a judge of what has happened since I left the board of AE. I was asked to become president after Arnold Burgen but felt I had too many other duties and was not the right person.

Times change and so do conditions and which activities are important and appropriate for AE. As I saw it, our main role from the beginning was not to concentrate on specific scientific issues in the scientific world but rather to identify problems in the societies and cultures that the scientific world could analyze and investigate.

I: I think there is an issue of communication between the different subject area groups. I’m not sure they are in touch with each other, so hopefully discussions like this, when they reach the section heads, could be catalysts for discussions among the groups. It seems to me that they are spread very unevenly. The other challenge I see came to the fore when I asked who were my country’s members of the Academia Europaea and invited them all to lunch. I had never met most of them before; many of them come from the same place and know each other but not those of us who don’t belong to, say, Trinity College. So I wonder whether in countries like Sweden, with its long tradition of scientific orientation, the Swedish members of Academia Europaea ever meet to discuss these issues?

D: No, and in my opinion there is no reason why they should. As I see it, the Academia can’t meet the demands of an Academy at the European level, if it does not clearly stick to its role or niche, as I tried to summarize it earlier. This reminds me of something I learned from chairman Mao during the “Students’ Revolution” at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. I had just become a full professor and sat with the students during their evening and night sessions. What I found was that the students’ criticism of the university’s system was well founded but their solutions had little contact with reality.

I: Off the wall.

D: To be able to talk with the students, I had to be at least as acquainted as they were with Chairman Mao’s writings. One of the Chairman’s points was: “The necessary condition for success in political and administrative decisions is that you make a correct and careful analysis of the reality that you want to work in”. This statement holds also in research, not least in social sciences. I have tried to teach my students that they must always return again and again to an analysis of a phenomenon they want to understand and start from there, matching methods and research strategies to the characteristics of reality. That was my approach in the process of establishing the Academia.

I: He also said “In any problem situation, having done this homework, to look for what is the greatest contradiction.”

Well, David, you have done so much for Academia and for all the other institutions where you took a leading role administratively and intellectually and I think your insights into the origins of the Academia Europaea will be very inspiring for those of us who will hear this tape (?). Thank you so much for coming.

D: Thank you very much, thank you.

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