About opportunism in science: the case of China

| Roberto Cruz Martínez

PhD candidate Roberto Cruz Martínez wrote this article in response to the opinion piece of Wessel van der Sande about the UT’s collaboration with China. ‘Opportunism can probably explain a lot of things about the current model and state of science. The priority seems to be fame and revenue.’

Roberto Cruz Martínez is a PhD candidate at Department of Psychology, Health & Technology (BMS faculty)

Our colleague Wessel van der Sande has recently voiced a brave opinion questioning the opportunistic mindset of the UT in its collaborations with parties in China, despite the multiple reports of injustices occurring in that country. In this comment to his article I first and foremost would like to acknowledge and echo the point raised by our colleague. In addition, I call for other members of the community, with or without a stake in the specific case, to stand up and discuss the topic of opportunism in science, especially in relation to the ethical principles and responsibilities that are so frequently championed at the universities of the world. It is my feeling that our community has a unique position and a lot to say in this matter.

The case of China

The article of my fellow PhD candidate struck me mainly for the intense call for contemporary scientists to embrace their responsibility to stand up against injustice. Remarkably, Wessel opens the door to leading scientists of the UT to take a stand on this specific case. In this regard, multiple times I have felt that the UT seems to remain in a political vacuum. No hard stances are taken, or presented with sufficient strength and independency – by UT executives or key members of the community – about the matters that occur in the international political scene. As a consequence, the UT top-level often strikes me more as a ‘strictly business’ environment, rather than one guided by integral principles of science and a commitment to societal impact.

Nevertheless, looking forward to 2030, the UT has defined a clear vision for their ‘entrepreneurial, inclusive and open mindset’, which includes the following statements:

‘[…], we must have the courage to make bold revisions where needed, to develop latent strengths, and to explore new territory. This is part of what it means to live in a transformational epoch: we are part of it, whether we like it or not, and the choice we have is to be either the/a pilot or a passenger. We can make choices that influence the transformation of society. In order to do this, we must cultivate a mind-set and attitudes that enable us to reach for new heights in entrepreneurialism, inclusiveness and openness.’

Considering this part of their vision, the only thing I can add to Wessel’s opinion is to directly formulate a question to the UT: What has been done to ensure that our university collaborations with China are not directly or indirectly backfiring against the ethical principles and intrinsic commitments to justice of modern science?

Opportunism in science: how can young scientists steer around it?

As Wessel suggests, it is very likely that opportunism can explain the silence and the continuation of profiting collaborations, no matter what else, as the standard for the UT and other institutions. In fact, opportunism can probably explain a lot of things about the current model and state of science. Indeed, the priority seems to be fame and revenue.

As a PhD candidate, an independent scientist in formation, I am afraid that in the future I might find myself too much and too often in the opportunistic mindset described by Wessel. I worry, because I know I am capable of such opportunistic behaviors with ease, not always recognizing their long-term impact for my professional practice and my personal life. In my personal experience, I also recognize the bilateral opportunism which can explain my relation with the university. As recently argued by an anonymous hero, I also suspect my coming to the university – despite any credentials I could have presented at the time – could have been influenced by the juicy tuition fees that international students have to pay. Even more so, now as a scholarship PhD candidate, I suspect money is again a helping argument in having people like me around. I do have my tiny scientist ego and confidence, but you never know.

This is far from a complaint, as I believe I have been the most opportunistic player in this game. The scientific training, the platforms for activism, the potential degree, and all else that I have been able to exploit during my stay suggest to me that I have gotten the best part out of this deal. Even more so, I am prepared to keep looking for opportunities that advance my professional goals, some of which would—as it happens—probably benefit from the acquisition of fame and money. Worry not! For I have earned my Academic Integrity certificate not long ago. Undeniable proof of the values that are forever imprinted on me.

I wonder, what do other young and upcoming scientists feel about this? What are the perceived boundaries of opportunism in their field? With these questions, I do not wish to deviate attention from the core matter pointed out by Wessel. However, as previously stated, his article struck a deeper chord within me. It feels good to recognize that there are individuals out there willing to call out injustice and potentially carry that influence in science. And the rest of us? What is to be done?