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When an expensive research project fell short, the granting procedure and the researcher’s credentials came under scrutiny. How did a celebrated academic with no peer-reviewed publications receive $900,000 in funding? Here’s a rundown of #himasgate, which has not received much play in the press outside of Scandinavia.
In 1994, Pekka Himanen defended his doctoral research in philosophy just four days before his 21st birthday. In the 19 years since, the wunderkind has become a bit of a media celebrity in Finland. Positioning himself as an expert on the information society, Himanen amassed book deals, honors, and even an Oxford professorship. So no one batted an eye when the government of Finland granted Himanen 700,000 euros (about $900,000) to create a vision for the country’s future sustainable growth. Though intended to propose innovative solutions for securing Finland’s economic and ecological prosperity, the commissioned report, called the “Blue Book,” has now become notorious for containing little if any original research.
The mandate was clear, and the world’s foremost expert was at the helm – so what went wrong?
An exposé published last month on the slow journalism site Long Play (pay-per-read, in Finnish) suggests that the celebrated philosopher is not so much an academic as a smooth-talking consultant. With their investigation, titled “Himanen’s Ethics” (a play on the subject’s own tome “The Hacker Ethic”), reporters Anu Silfverberg and Johanna Vehkoo have created quite a stir in Finland, embroiling even Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen in questions of research misconduct and misappropriation of funds.
The saga began when Himanen and Katainen along with other cabinet members agreed – apparently amongst themselves – that Himanen would lead an international investigation on Finland’s information age growth strategies in exchange for 700,000 euros of public funds, funneled through Himanen’s consultancy Sofos.
Katainen, who at the time of the decision in 2009 was the finance minister, claims that the bodies supplying the grant funds – the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (Tekes) and the Finnish Innovation Fund (Sitra) as well as the Academy of Finland – were all enthusiastic about the proposal, and there was no need to put the grant up for competition. A former director of Tekes now says the research should have been put to tender, and claims the administration wanted to commission the report specifically from Himanen, as if the matter had been pre-determined. Some members of parliament are now questioning the legality of Katainen’s unilateral decision to award the funds to Himanen.
As the government grapples with the fallout, Himanen himself has been unreachable for comment. The Long Play investigation dug deep into Himanen’s credentials and found them to be embellished. He passed himself off as an Oxford professor but had actually only held a visiting post there for less than a year; Himanen has a part-time faculty position at Finland’s Aalto University that is set to expire in 2014. Most disturbingly for an academic of 20 years: he has published exactly zero peer-reviewed papers. His bio in the Blue Book (pdf in Finnish) and on his website claims he is “one of the internationally best-known researchers of the information age…whose work has been recognized with numerous international awards.” For a time Himanen was a researcher at UC Berkeley, but that project appears to have been shuttered in 2005, though the website remains.
Scrutiny of the contract between the funders and Himanen reveals that in the case of an “error” – such as if the report does not fulfill “the normal quality standards of academic research” – Himanen would be liable for only 50,000 euros in damages. The Blue Book report, released in November 2012, does not seem to reflect the supposed 91 months of research that went into it, nor does it contain methods, new data, or other elements one might normally expect in a research paper. Of the report’s 157 pages, 25 are blank, while the rest are filled with circumlocution, neologisms, and a lack of concrete recommendations, according to two reviews. Another blogger calls the Blue Book’s glib rhetoric a symptom of neoliberal academia, where research morphs into politically motivated consulting.
There may not have been anything untoward in the granting process, as Prime Minister Katainen claims; a parliamentary committee investigation into the matter is ongoing. The Blue Book report, the final version of which is due later this year, may yet fulfill some kind of useful purpose and pay back its hefty price tag. But if there was wrongdoing, who is ultimately responsible for the breakdown in research standards and transparency? Is Himanen just the poor messenger, while the real perpetrators are the funders, who approved a questionable research project led by a man with a spotty track record?
Perhaps in its eagerness to define Finland as an avant-garde information society, the nation’s government was blinded by charisma over credentials. Writing in the tech magazine Tietoviikko, Tiina Siltala points out that Himanen has been producing visionary reports that are big on buzzwords but short on content for close to a decade, starting at the bargain price of 50,000 euros in 2004. A previously commissioned report, 2010’s “Kukoistuksen käsikirjoitus” or “The Script for Prosperity,” dealt ostensibly with solving the challenges of aging, obesity, and mental healthcare faced by Finnish society. The report was panned, with one critic writing that the text read like an idealistic high school essay, not a serious societal strategy. Another review was simply titled “Bullshit 2.0.”
Manuel Castells, a sociologist at the University of Southern California and Blue Book co-author, has defended Himanen, calling him one of Finland’s brightest and most influential thinkers and citing “envy” of his successes as driving the spread of false information. In their investigation, Silfverberg and Vehkoo found that a number of the Blue Book co-authors have non-existent web presences and vague “professorships” that cannot be confirmed by their institutions. They were also completely stonewalled in their attempts to interview any of Himanen’s colleagues. Two of the Blue Book co-authors, Berkeley professors AnnaLee Saxenian and You-Tien Hsing, were also unavailable for comment for this story.
So how did Pekka Himanen get universities, governments, and foundations to drink his special Kool-Aid?
In the end, the promise he has been expounding for the last decade – that of the network society and the new immaterial economy, where we can all make money out of nothing, our industries can become green overnight, and everyone can maintain a high quality of life – was too intoxicating to pass up. And the boy wonder had been on an upward trajectory ever since his doctoral committee rushed him through the process in order to break a record. How could he not be an Oxford professor?