Bo Rothstein bows out

– My potential strength as a researcher has been that I saw things that others did not. While most political scientists were interested in politics, I was contemplating what creates human well-being. And it turned out to depend very little on which party wins the general election. Bo Rothstein, who is about to retire, elaborates.

As a researcher, you should strive to make yourself superfluous, explains Bo Rothstein, Professor of Political Science.

However, Bo Rothstein will not be spending his retirement being sedentary. In the spring of 2022, he will be a visiting researcher at Harvard, the university where he began his international engagement in 1992.

“Now that I’m leaving the QoG institute, which Sören Holmberg and myself started in 2004, there are around thirty younger researchers that will take over. They know everything that I do, and then quite a lot that I don’t. Their commitment has led to tremendous success. In one year alone, the institute had more Research Council applications accepted than any other social science department in Sweden.”

Political scientists tend to focus on democracy and political parties.

 “Currently, many political scientists are concerned about growing populism and the decline of democracy, for example. But I would argue that there are other things that should concern us more, such as the tremendous increase in financial inequality in large parts of the world, including Sweden.”

Something very worrying, which political scientist previously did not care about, is corruption.

“Throughout my entire undergraduate period, corruption was not mentioned at all. And in general, there was a view that a little bribe could help to grease the wheels. However, the research community has changed their minds over the past few years, and realised that corruption has immense adverse effects on everything related to human well-being; none of the UN Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved if we do not first build well-functioning public institutions.”

One of the most important prerequisites for a good, non-corrupt society is trust between citizens. American political scientist Robert Putnam argued that trust is built when people are involved in volunteer work for NGOs.

“But that has turned out not to be entirely true. Instead, social trust is about public institutions that work. Because if not even the representatives of the state are honest, who is?”

But corruption is a term that is difficult to define, Bo Rothstein points out.

“The most commonly used explanation is that corruption is the misuse of public power for personal gain. But what counts as misuse or personal gain can vary, which makes the term vague. Within QoG, therefore, we define what the opposite of corruption is: impartiality. By impartiality we mean that public servants cannot consider anything beyond what is written in laws and statutes – for example neither gender, ethnic origin, political views or religion can have any significance.”

The universities, who train the public servants, have a considerable responsibility. That was the reason why Bo Rothstein, together with Professor Lennart Levi, in 2014 launched the so-called Poznan Declaration.

“That means that issues concerning ethics shall be integrated into all educational programmes, such as for physicians, teachers, economists, biologists, etc. Because just like the American political scientist Francis Fukyama pointed out, impartiality does not appear by itself, it is something that has to be learned and practised. All 68 universities that are part of the network, The Compostela Group of Universities, have signed the declaration.”

Bo Rothstein’s approach to ethics was truly put to the test in 2017. After barely two years as a professor at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford he felt he had to resign.

“Their operation is built on a donation of 75 million pounds from the billionaire Leonard Blavatnik and the school’s motto is “A world better governed”. When it was revealed that Blavatnik had also donated a considerable sum to Donald Trump, I asked the management of the school what they intended to do. The answer was that they did not intend to do anything. As my field of research is the quality of governance, I felt that I could not, with any credibility, continue; and so I resigned.”

However Bo Rothstein does not see returning to the University of Gothenburg as a step back.

“I liked it very much in Oxford, particularly having master’s students from all over the world. But the department of political science at the University of Gothenburg does very well in international comparisons; the ten most cited political scientists here are actually more cited than the ten most cited at Oxford. And the RED 19 evaluation showed that our department is one of the most prominent in Europe.”

All researchers are wrong sometimes, but it is about being wrong in interesting ways.

Besides being a researcher and lecturer, Bo Rothstein is also involved in public discourse, something that he himself is keen to play down, however.

“I neither blog nor tweet, and do not appear on TV programmes. But I do find it peculiar when researchers do not participate in public discourse at all, do they really have no findings that would interest the public? I would be happy to accept if I was invited to hold a lecture. And I also try to contribute about ten modest op-ed articles per year, with some humble comments.”

In particular, he has become known for his position on gender research.

“At the beginning of 2000, Yvonne Hirdman argued that my position on gender science was so bizarre that I should personally be the subject of a research project. I responded by saying, please, go ahead: there is a large number of cine films from my childhood, as well as former classmates and dear girlfriends who would gladly get involved. But on a more serious note, I have nothing against gender science, what concerns me is that the discipline is so gender segregated, with almost exclusively female researchers and students. I would argue that if anyone has promoted gender equality it is me: of the 17 doctoral students I supervised, ten were women, as were 14 of the 23 post-docs who were employed in my projects.”

Besides gender, Bo Rothstein has more recently debated the corona crisis, populism, religiosity and the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Have you ever been really wrong about something?

“Of course. All researchers are wrong sometimes, but it is about being wrong in interesting ways. Putnam’s theory about trust was wrong for example, but it led to an important discussion that drove progress. Depending on how you conduct research, there are also different risks of being wrong: If you assume a theory, you risk just looking for the things that support that theory, and if you assume a method, then you risk illustrating a problem in an overly narrow way. A third way is to take a problem and then use theory and method as your tools. You can still go wrong, of course, but the focus on the problem makes it easier to change your approach and redo things.”

Another problem for researchers is to want to much.

” “Willing that which cannot be willed” is a phrase coined by the Norwegian political scientist, Jon Elster. It means that the more you want something, the less probable it is that it will happen. For example, you won’t fall in love or become creative just because you really want to. Instead, you should create the right conditions for what you want to happen, and then stop trying to control the situation.”

When Bo Rothstein retires he will not just tend to his garden in Liguria in Italy. He will also be senior advisor in a number of research projects, a visiting scholar at Harvard in the spring of 2022 as well as popping in at the department in Gothenburg if anything fun is happening.

“Even though it’s nice to retire, I also feel a certain sadness. Working at the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg has been a privilege. For example, I have never experienced even the slightest conflict with any of the heads of department. And out of the many prominent political science departments where I have worked, in various parts of the world, none of them can match the one in Gothenburg.”

Source: University of Gothenburg

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