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2019 in Political Science (2) – Secrecy in Europe and Academic Trajectories

I have promised to blog more frequently this year and to share how life and work as a political scientist looks like from my end. For this week’s post, I use the occasion of Vigjilenca Abazi‘s announcement that her monograph “Secrecy and Oversight in the EU” is soon to be published with Oxford University Press (Buy it! Read it! Cite it!) to write about a part of my career trajectory inside and outside academia.

Why does an upcoming monograph by a colleague inspire this post? Well, the first time I met Vigjilenca Abazi was at the University of Amsterdam in Spring 2013, where she worked on her PhD, defended in December 2015 and turned into this upcoming Oxford monograph. At that time, I myself was working to finish my own PhD thesis, mainly on weekends, or whenever I found the time.

My day job was with the EU office of Transparency International (TI) in Brussels. Then, this job as a professional activist was taking most of my energy and attention. It took way too much of my energy, I have to say retrospectively, which was one of the reasons to return to academia later.

Going to Amsterdam for a day in 2013 was kind of exciting, because it linked my academic with my activist soul.

I went there with a team of Transparency International colleagues to meet with the team of Professor Deirdre Curtin (Google Scholar), who was, and still is, one of the prime legal scholars on EU secrecy and accountability. Vigjilenca was among the scholars we met there. We hoped to get Professor Curtin on the advisory board of our advocacy-oriented research project at Transparency International, and also to profit from her own and her team’s academic expertise. And we got both.

This research project, for which we went to Amsterdam, turned into Transparency International’s first “European Union Integrity System” (EUIS) study, covering transparency, ethics and accountability across ten EU institutions and bodies. A major effort, under quite some pressure, but done with a group of people who were more than amazing (you know who you are!).

The EU Integrity System study came out almost five years ago, at the end of April 2014. It came just in time for the 2014 European Parliament elections, and just one week after I finally defended my own PhD thesis.

Thanks to the press work of colleagues and thanks to the weight of a global NGO like Transparency International, the study received coverage in European and global media, for example in the The Economist:

“TI’s report spares none of the institutions. The commission (the EU’s civil service) is accused of failing properly to use its power to blacklist corruption-tainted companies from bidding for EU contracts. The workings of the Council of Ministers (representing governments) were deemed to be opaque. The OLAF website urges officials to report fraud, with promises to protect whistle-blowers, but its own staff members do not have an external channel to report misconduct. Across the system, declarations of interest by senior EU figures are not routinely checked.”

I went back to academia one month after the study was published, so the impact that followed from the study, the changes that took place in EU institutions, happened without me being in Brussels.

Beyond this impact, and even though this was not an academic study in the narrow sense, a lot of what I know about the European Union and its institutions comes from this research. In 2013-14, together with my team, we studied a substantial amount of material previously unstudied by academics and activists alike. Every day we learnt something new.

I mainly worked on the overall design of the study and then focused on a few substantive parts, participating for example in interviews with the Secretaries-General of the European Commission and of the EU Court of Auditors, with staff in the Court of Justice of the European Union, with officials in Council of Ministers Secretariat, or with an expert from the European Central Bank. So more than any academic reading could ever get me, this research allowed for a fascinating views behind the scenes of EU decision-making.

When I returned to academia and went to work at LMU Munich in 2014, I took these experiences with me, into my academic research on the European Union and on the United Nations, and into my teaching.

When I teach, this semester, a Master class on “Secrecy, Transparency, and Lobbying in the European Union“, my students hopefully profit from the knowledge I got through this advocacy-oriented research on 10+ EU institutions and bodies. They read texts by Deirdre Curtin; by Maarten Hillebrandt, who was also on Curtin’s team back in 2013; and by other scholars who I discovered for this research. I can tell stories that I only know because I did this non-academic work.

My own research on EU leaks and on EU budgeting in the past years has also profited from the research experiences I had in Brussels.

Some of the documents I knew existed thanks to the EUIS study helped me to make targeted freedom of information requests for my research. I also learnt a lot about research team management at TI, even before I had a PhD. This is valuable experience  you may not get in an academic career until you are a professor or until you have successfully fundraised your own research projects.

For my article in West European Politics on leak prevention by the European Commission, I even got back in contact with Vigjilenca Abazi, profiting from her expertise in both the research and the writing process of this article.

In workshops where I presented drafts of this article, I met again with Deirdre Curtin, receiving her comments now for my academic work. So the transition from civil society research to academic research has been rather fluid, both in terms of substance and in terms of the people that matter. It may appear like these are two different lives, especially since most of my work today is on the United Nations, but there is quite some continuity.

When it comes to my academic track record, however, the research at Transparency International will probably not count as much as even a minor peer-revied journal article I will publish now. 

The irony is that the “peer review” of the EUIS study was as hard as it gets. Because of the EUIS study’s advisory group that included academic and non-academic EU experts; due to the involvement of various colleagues in Transparency International in Brussels and Berlin; and due to the fact that we discussed our findings with EU institutions prior to publication, we had to defend every inch of our work. Probably more than in some of the work I do today.

Yet, for search committees evaluating my CV or for tenure decisions at a university, my non-academic research will clearly not count as much as, for example, my upcoming monograph on “Managing Money and Discord in the UN” (Oxford University Press). At least this is the impression I have from everything I know about academic careers today.

Why? Because academia favours academic publishing, and a limited amount of top journals and top book publishers count even more, clearly more than a non-academic study.

Still, as you can see on Google Scholar, the EU integrity system study from 2014 is cited in recent academic publications. When you search for the full title of the EUIS study, you find even more academic references or books, including a text book on “The Institutions of the European Union“, a volume on “Lobbying in the European Parliament: The Battle for Influence” or a monograph on “Public Ethics at the European Commission“.

So at least to some degree my non-academic research might count, academically. Making things count is part of an academic job, whether you want it or not. The logic of a modern academic career in political science (and other sciences), in particular before tenure, makes you look at everything you do in terms of academically countable outputs. You cannot escape it.

But you have to try to escape the logic of counting whenever you can.

When I see my own work on secrecy in the European Union, academic and non-academic, over the past decade, I rather see the full trajectory.

Much of it is hard to count. I see the complex, multi-year learning processes that feeds into today’s writing and teaching in various ways. I see the people I have met along the way, and their own paths over the years. And I don’t count what they have done, I look at their trajectories and the impact they have left on the way, on me and on others.

If you are a young political scientist, pressured to count everything you do: Don’t think of your academic life like this. It’s kind of a professional defect to keep counting everything, comparing your count with the counts of others, but this is not what counts.

What counts is to see a colleague like Vigjilenca Abazi publish her book on “Secrecy and Oversight in the EU“, and to know how much a new generation of academics, students and activists will profit from her expertise.

Those who will read her work will profit in the same way that I have profited from her expertise, even before the book has been published. A published book or article is just the tip of the academic iceberg, and below the surface there are academic and non-academic trajectories that are more diverse than the quantifiable output and impact on the surface.

And so, when I see a new generation of activists at the Transparency International EU Office work on the “EU Integrity Study 2.0” right now, I know what it means to conduct the research, I know how much this work stands on the shoulders of others, and I look forward reading about how much has changed in the past five years since we published the first European Union Integrity System study.

And all of this feeds into who I am as a political scientist today.



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