Thursday, March 12, 2009

Prostituting with dictators and prosecuting people of science: Reflections on Martin Jahnke's case

On Feb. 3, I wrote a post about the personality cult that formed around Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi after the latter threw his shoes at then-US Pres. Bush. At the end of the post, I mentioned that the previous day, "as Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was delivering a lecture at the Cambridge University, an unidentified 27-year-old man called him a "dictator" and threw at him a shoe, which landed a meter away."
The protester was soon identified as German postgraduate life sciences student Martin Jahnke. He is listed on the Cambridge Department of Pathology page as a member of Prof. John Trowsdale's group researching genetic and functional relationships between immune receptors. He is a co-author of a very recent article on HLA-DR polyubiquitination published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. The quote below is from the Feb. 7 Telegraph report Cambridge shoe protester is German pathology research student, by Richard Edwards:
"Martin Jahnke.. has been at the university for several years, tutoring undergraduates and presenting lunchtime seminars... The "out of character" stunt has left the quiet and diligent student in deep trouble – facing the prospect of a criminal record and possible suspension or rustication from the university... Gordon Brown expressed his personal regret to Mr Wen in a letter. Cambridge's vice chancellor, Professor Alison Richard, also "sincerely apologised" for the episode. The university attracts more than 600 Chinese students a year and are currently engaged in a recruitment drive from Hong Kong. Officials said that they are taking the matter "very, very seriously". A formal, internal complaint is expected will be heard by the Cambridge University Advocate, Professor Christopher Forsyth, who is a crown court judge, barrister and chair of Public Law and Private International Law at Cambridge. Sanctions include a fine, suspension or rustication from Cambridge. As part of a study group of graduates under Professor John Trowsdale, which includes two Chinese students, Mr Jahnke carries out important genetic research into debilitating diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and arthritis. He has had his work published in the Journal of Biochemistry (the author seems to mean the Journal of Biological Chemistry - M.M.) and has delivered lunchtime seminars to other graduate students. The 27-year-old is also a leading member of the university caving club and takes part in regular expeditions in Wales, the south west and north of England... The (Chinese) prime minister had spoken for 40 minutes and was five minutes from finishing his speech when the protester stood and shouted: "How can the University prostitute itself with this dictator here?" and "How can you listen to the lies he's telling?" He threw the shoe as he was bundled out of the lecture hall and missed the prime minister by ten feet."
Of course Jahnke's act did not trigger a massive wave of sympathy as we saw earlier in al-Zaidi's case. The only statement of support I found is on the Countdown for China blog by dissident Chinese expatriot Shao Jiang. In his Open Letter to European Parliament on the Case of Martin Jahnke, Jiang writes, "Jahnke did nothing but criticize a dictator, using no violence whatsoever. How can he be accused of any crime? We are appalled to see that an EU country is on its way to carrying out a political trial against an EU citizen... We admire his courage and owe him a debt of gratitude for speaking out for those in China who have never had the chance to express their despair. His action has greatly inspired an oppressed people to continue their fight for freedom, democracy and human rights.We urge an independent body to investigate the University of Cambridge for its breach of academic freedom and suppression of dissident opinions during Wen Jiabao’s visit. We would urge the same body to investigate some European governments for their abuse of police powers, out of shameful deference to the CCP, and for violating the rights of peaceful demonstrators during Wen’s visit to the EU.China is still a totalitarian state... We wish to draw the attention of the Committee on Human Rights to the fact that in this period of economic crisis, some European governments are abandoning the sanctity of human rights for the sake of doing business with the Chinese Communist regime. In so doing, they have not only given up on human rights in China, but also betrayed human rights in the EU..." A number of people, among whom Chinese prevail, have signed the letter.
I must state in the beginning that I, personally, do not find throwing objects at people an acceptable way of expressing one's opinion. I suggest leaving acts of this sort to members of the enemy camp, such as the above mentioned al-Zaidi or the terrorism supporters who on Feb. 4 threw a shoe and other objects at Israeli ambassador to Sweden Benny Dagan. And if some "Western hotheads" (as Highlander would call them) are still tempted to follow Jahnke's example, I wish to point to them that the damn bastard (I mean Wen of course) seems to have benefited from the incident. Indeed, immediately after it he showed his true colours and no sense of humour, calling the protester's behaviour "despicable". However, after receiving a letter of apology from Jahnke (and possibly also after consulting some PR experts), Wen called for leniency , appealing to the University of Cambridge to let the young man continue his study. So now, to the unsophisticated observer, the Chinese dictator came out of this affair victorious on a white horse.
Disclaimer in place, now I can proceed. I wish to share my thoughts about Jahnke's case and try to defend him, because I sympathize with him very much. We both share the belief that all people are important and should live in freedom, democracy and prosperity. Also, we both belong to the community of university students, teachers and researchers that I'll call "people of science". We have even shared a research topic - my Master thesis was about immune phenomena in diabetes, on which Jahnke is working now (with incomparably higher quality of work, of course).
While I agree that the shoe-throwing was a mistake, I don't think Jahnke alone should be blamed for this mistake. If I go to visit a synagogue with a swastica attached to my coat, my behaviour would be characterized as provocation and I would receive most of the blame for any unfortunate turn that might follow. I think inviting a dictator to deliver a speech at a university is a similar provocation. Most university students and employees are expected to be freedom-loving people with utter dislike to dictators; and all university students and employees are expected to value the realm of human thought, which is another reason for them not to give an ear to dictators. After all, the quest for knowledge is based on free discussion and comparing the merits of different opinions. If somebody insists on installing his opinion by force and suppressing all other opinions, as dictators do, this automatically brings to zero the intellectual value of whatever this person has to say. Hence, dictators have nothing to do in university lecture halls. What is this modern fashion of inviting dictators to universities of free countries? What on Earth was Iran's president Ahmadinejad doing at Columbia University, and what was Wen doing at Cambridge? Inviting a dictator to speak at a university adds undue authority to the dictator and, respectively, diminishes the authority of the university. Why was Putin made honorary doctor of the University of Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria, reportedly after a plan of his friend Schroeder to make him honorary doctor of the Hamburg University failed? I think that university officials who flirt with dictators for dubious purposes (or, as Jahnke put it more bluntly, prostitute themselves with dictators), are largely responsible for resulting unpleasant incidents. I hope that the Cambridge shoe-throwing will lead to reconsidering the policy of prostituting with dictators by some universities, even if nobody admits this in public.
By the way, let me quote again a sentence from the Telegraph report: "The university attracts more than 600 Chinese students a year and are currently engaged in a recruitment drive from Hong Kong." Frankly, I thought that university officials trote the globe to lure students for the sake of their precious tuition fees only in backward countries like Bulgaria, where public moral is completely eroded by chronic poverty and absence of hope for a brighter future. Besides, doesn't anybody figure out that, while some young Chinese may adore their dictatorship in a sheep-like fashion, others may dislike it, and the latter ones are likely to make better Cambridge students?
Unfortunately, Jahnke is not in a position to invite kindly as co-defendants the Cambridge University officials who brought Wen to desacrate the campus land. On the contrary, they seem eager to use/abuse all the power they have in order to portray Jahnke guilty of all mortal sins, and themselves free of any wrongdoing. More often than not, universities and research institutes are headed by unscrupulous people with negative moral virtues and mediocre (at best) intellect - a fact that can surprise only those infamiliar with the rigid hierarchy of science and university education. For a very mild illustration how little respect officials have toward those below them in the hierarchy, see my previous post How scientists are viewed today (BTW the institute described in this post has some, although indirect, relation to Cambridge). I fear that only massive pressure by the academic community in Cambridge and elsewhere (which isn't visible for the moment) can prevent the university authorities from acting as miniature versions of Chinese dictators.
Let's return to the legal aspect of the case. I hope that nobody will interpret my text as implying that people of science must be granted immunity when they break the law. However, the reality as we know it is that people of science, when they break the law, are punished more severely than almost anybody else. Under Bulgarian laws, people convicted for intentional crimes lose the right to study at a university or, if they have already graduated, to work as university teachers and researchers. (The term "intentional crime" here is quite interesting; it apparently covers Jahnke's shoe-throwing but will leave off the hook any dean who kills a person by drunken driving.) I admit that, when I have taken part in half-allowed or banned street protests, I have always feared that I might end up with some sentence that, however small, would be for an "intentional" crime and so would make me uneligible for my university. (To those thinking that one could avoid this risk by keeping his offences strictly in the misdemeanor range, I'll say that nothing is easier for police than lying that you have attacked them, as once happened to my online friend Jane Meyerding. Also, the demise of free speech by criminalizing more and more topics of criticism as "hate speech" makes it fairly easy for anybody to acquire a criminal record.) I don't know whether British laws are similar, but even if they aren't, Cambridge University authorities could expel Jahnke by their own decision.
I wish to add that expelling a science student or firing a researcher or university teacher means much more than the loss of money and work invested over years. Restarting a carrier can be very difficult for young people of science. One must keep in mind that public universities and research institutes in every country form interconnected networks where people are careful not to anger other people on which they may depend some day. Therefore, if a graduate student or employee has quarreled with his superior and has left his institution (or has been expelled from it), then the absence of proper recommendations by the boss will make it almost impossible for the victim to find another suitable position in the same country. My friend once was systematically abused by her mentally ill PhD advisor and managed to find another advisor only after intervention by a professor who knew her personally. Another young researcher known to me emigrated to escape emotional abuse by her PhD advisor. I also knew a PhD student who was harassed after her colleague and boyfriend accused a superior in incompetence - a careless though perfectly true statement. I later lost touch with that couple and don't know what happened to him and whether she ever finished her PhD thesis. I also don't know what happened to my fellow student fired from his research position because of criticizing the institute; he intended to struggle for his rights in court, though he hardly had the resources for this. I'd wish to give more examples with people from my own extended family living in the USA, but I fear that they might disapprove this, even if I keep their anonymity.
I hope that you already understand that even in democratic countries people of science can find themselves in the situation described by Nadezhda Mandelstam as "government monopolizing all jobs and keeping inconvenient people unemployed". The private sector has very few positions suitable for people trained in science and often can give them only the last refuge of unskilled labour. In my country's Neofit Rilski Southwestern University, an assistant named Petar Doshkov was fired and put to trial after exposing corruption practices in a TV interview. He was eventually acquitted and restored to his position by court, but the process took more than 3 years. During this time, finding himself unemployed in a region with sky high unemployment rate, he had to work on his father's small subsistence farm.
The worst aspect of the situation actually isn't the material one - after all, wages of people of science are often comparable to those of unskilled workers. The worst aspect, to my opinion, is losing the occupation one likes and in fact needs. Most people cannot understand this because they don't care much what work they will do, as long as it isn't too hard or unpleasant or poorly paid. However, people of science (even mediocre ones) express themselves in their work. Their craft is integrated in their personality and without doing it they cannot have not only happiness but even a reasonably normal life. To ban a person of science from doing his work, or to abuse him until he quits "voluntarily", can have severe and unpredictable consequences for the victim. During my undergraduate study, I twice feared that I'd be expelled because of serious disagreements with teachers; and I admit I was totally freaked out in both cases, because they dragged for monghs before eventually coming to a quasi-happy ending. I prefer not to mention here how I felt during the later troubles with my PhD thesis - I still don't feel strong enough for this. Unfortunately, people of science have to rely only on themselves when in trouble, because there is little solidarity between them and no support by the rest of the society. The only exception are courts restoring illegally fired teachers and researchers to their positions, as mentioned above; in most Western countries, this chance is taken away by keeping people of science on temporary contracts, so that no specific reasons need to be given for not renewing the employee's contract.
I am afraid this post spontaneously grew into a too ambitious attempt to explain why we are having "hard days on the endless frontier". Let me return to Jahnke's case. If he by chance is reading this, I'd advise him not to quit Cambridge voluntarily (as my colleagues and friends have always told me when I have considered this step, "the enemy will be very happy if you leave - don't give them such a pleasure"). And also not to sign without consulting a lawyer any papers tossed in his direction by the bosses (a doctor I know lost her job this way). He is welcome to e-mail me (mayamarkov at gmail dot com) - and also any person connected to him who wishes. One need not necessarily be himself subjected to prosecution, disciplinary proceesings, forced apology and gag orders for calling a dictator a dictator - just being around when such things happen may make a person need emotional support.
I hope that Jahnke's advisor Prof. Trowsdale, who looks like a nice person on photos, will support his student and help Jahnke's PhD thesis to be live-born. The scientific community in Cambridge and elsewhere also can help. We know our craft and its rules, so I need not give tips about citations and peer-reviewing and other things, need I :-) ? What a pity that my own research topics are so many miles away.

Monday, March 09, 2009

How scientists are viewed today

Back in the 1930s, in his Revolt of the Masses, Ortega y Gasset lamented that scientists had become pariahs of the modern world. I think today this is exactly as true, if not even more. Let me first quote an e-mail received a month ago by employees at a respectful research institute in Britain:

"Subject: Institute Closure
Due to the obvious adverse weather conditions I have decided to close the Institute for today.
Staff should finish up what they are doing as soon as possible, leaving their work safe and in a position to minimise loss, particularly of experimental material. Before leaving you should consult with your line manager or next available senior manager so they are fully aware of how you have left things.
If you decide to stay at work then you should follow working procedures as they are at weekends, i.e. contacting Security to tell them that you are lone working, and not undertaking any work that is not risk assessed as suitable for a lone worker.
Staff leaving now are expected, where possible, to take some form of work home with them, especially if the worsening conditions mean it might be impossible to come into work tomorrow. This could involve catching up on paperwork, reading guidance notes or scientific literature, or catching up on those things that you don’t usually have time for. Similarly, staff already at home are also expected to do some work, even if they have nothing with them. For example, they could take this opportunity to think about PPDRs and forward job plans...
Safe journey home!"

Below I am giving the comment of the institute employee who re-sent me the e-mail, violating the rules of the institute:

"Maya, see what e-mails we receive at the archistupid (the name of the institute). I am not going now to comment the fact that the entire country is paralyzed by several centimeters of snow. I am writing because I am afraid that if I die suddenly, there will be nobody to tell future generations why the archistupid (the name of the institute) deserves this adjective! Here is an illustration of the attitude of the "high" administration to ordinary scientists. The administration takes for granted that at the first opportunity we all will abandon our experiments and leave the laboratories with satanic smiles on our faces, and only fear from punishment prevents this from happening. Moreover, we must seek permission from our superiors before abandoning our test tubes because, goodness knows, we may be too ignorant in the experimental procedures and, being cunning too, we cannot be trusted when the institute is in the danger of suffering Losses! Also, they are giving us valuable help by supplying a list of tasks on which we can work at home. It must be kept in mind that we have started our jobs with a single purpose - to cheat and enrich ourselves at the expense of the institute. So we must be prevented by any means from using the disaster in order to live a whole day at the expense of the institute. I wonder why they didn't promise to quiz us about the work done at home, after the snow melts..."

Thursday, March 05, 2009


On Friday, I read in Trud daily about a Moroccan soccer player currently engaged in one of the leading Bulgarian teams. The report wasn't about his performance on the field but about his driving with 0.12% alcohol in blood, crashing the car into a fence (happily, nobody was injured) and spending several hours in police custody. That wasn't his first offence of this sort. Bulgarians can read about the incident e.g. here.
Upon his release, the player was "greeted" by a pack of reporters, as any celebrity in his situation could expect. Some of their questions to him and his answers (when any) are published here. However, the Trud report listed also another question, which in various forms is repeated by various Web commenters:
"Why do you drink, after your religion bans alcohol?"
Eh well, I also hate drunken driving (though some of my best friends have been punished for it), I particularly dislike sport star drunken drivers after figure skater Maxim Staviski killed a man and left a girl in coma, I don't see any use of professional sport, I am outraged by the giant salaries of sport stars compared to the offendingly low salaries of people like me, and I don't wish in my country any guest workers from North Africa (for my new readers, I am an Islamophobe).
BUT. You may not, you just cannot look a survivor of Islam in the face and tell him that because he has had the poor luck to be born exactly in this religion, he is obliged to live by the rules of Sharia whenever this suits you.
I think this petty xenophobia reveals the spiritual vacuum of today's Europe that may eventually be the true reason for its demise.