Sunday, July 13, 2014

Can đảm nhìn vào sự thật

Xin giới thiệu một bài viết của Gs Pierre Darriulat về tình hình đào tạo tiến sĩ và nghiên cứu khoa học ở VN. Bản tiếng Việt đã đăng trên Tia Sáng, đây là nguyên gốc bản tiếng Anh. Bài viết hơi dài nhưng có nhiều sự thật được phơi bày một cách đau lòng.

Ví dụ như sự chảnh chọe của đại học Việt Nam:

“Vài năm trước, Thủ tướng tuyên bố ý định đến năm 2020 sẽ đào tạo 20 ngàn tiến sĩ. Sự thật là 3 cựu sinh viên của tôi, những người đã tốt nghiệp tiến sĩ dưới sự đồng hướng dẫn giữa Việt Nam và các đại học nổi tiếng của Pháp nhưng đến nay vẫn chưa nhận được văn bằng của Việt Nam.”

hay tình trạng hám chức quyền:

“Khi bước vào hành lang của các đại học và viện nghiên cứu VN, bạn sẽ thấy trên cửa những danh hiệu giám đốc trung tâm này, giám đốc trung tâm kia, nhưng sự thật là những trung tâm đó thường chỉ có 1 người.”

Và những thiết bị đấp chiếu:

"Khoa vật lí hạt nhân của một đại học từng bỏ ra vài triệu USD để mua một chiếc máy gia tốc mà họ cũng không biết phải dùng để làm gì. Thực ra, loại máy gia tốc này chỉ hữu ích cho giới vật lí hạt nhân khoảng 60 năm về trước, còn hiện nay nó chỉ có thể được sử dụng trong lĩnh vực nghiên cứu vật liệu mà thôi. Tuy vậy, người ta vẫn quyết định mua, nhưng lại không cho các nhà khoa học vật liệu cơ hội sử dụng nó."

Tình hình như thế thì còn vất vả lắm và lâu lắm thì các đại học VN mới sánh vai cùng các đại học trong vùng và trên thế giới. 



Nhìn thẳng vào sự thật, đánh giá đúng sự thật, nói rõ sự thật
Face the truth, recognise the truth, tell the truth.
VIth Party Congress, 1986

I just finished reading Nguyen Thi Binh’s autobiography (Family, Friends and Country). She has a chapter on her ten years as Minister of Education. Reading it is enlightening. What she talks about happened less than thirty years ago, meaning yesterday for someone of my age. Her problems were: to unify education between North and South; to eradicate illiteracy among workers; to build new schools – including in remote parts of the country – and pedagogical schools to train teachers; to simply survive the most difficult years of 1979 and 1980; to plant Hai Duong litchis to help improving teachers’ wages; to guide actions such as “Green covers for bare hills”, “Contribute bits of paper”, “Collect bottles and cans” or “Gather duck feathers”.  Reading Binh’s book makes it clear that the modern times VietnameseUniversity had to be built from scratch at the end of the eighties. We need to face the truth: in many domains, such as particle physics and astrophysics, to quote just two with which I am particularly familiar, it still needs to be built from scratch. 

It is customary, for those of us who are familiar with western academic life, to praise virtues in which we believe as a gospel, such as intellectual and moral rigour or academic freedom; we fight arguments of authority and we encourage critical thinking; we praise the synergy between fundamental and applied research, between theory and experiment or observation, between research and teaching; we like to see the words that Hô Dac Di pronounced in the Viêt Bac forest between 1947 and 1949 be the basis on which the modern Vietnamese university must be built[1]. Many of us have dedicated their whole lives to such ideal. The danger, however, is that such a gospel becomes a cocoon of intellectual comfort that prevents us from looking straight at the truth. The truth is that the words of Hô Dac Di were incredibly ahead of his time and are still far from being meaningful to the average Vietnamese scholar.

It is customary to allude to the Confucian influence on the Vietnamese culture when disserting about higher education in Viet Nam, to remark that Van Mieu was built a few years before the oldest European university, that throughout history Vietnamese have always attached a paramount importance to education. The truth is that less than a century ago more than 90% of the nation was analphabetic, that thirty years of wars have deprived a whole generation of education and training. Today, the situation is reversed, more than 90% can read and write; parents and grand parents see universities as the gateway for their children to wealth, to social promotion, to happiness; in a word to all what they have been hoping for during their difficult lives and did not have a chance to enjoy. They make enormous sacrifices to support their children through their university years; those who are better off save for years in order to send their children study abroad. But the truth is that they identify in their mind happiness with fortune, culture with wealth; the truth is that their children grow up with the idea that money is more worthy of respect than knowledge. Seduced by the magic of words, universities train their students in economy, management, marketing; but the truth is that they mostly train bank clerks, pen pushers, foremen and commercial travellers. In the Ha Noi universities where I have taught, I have seen so many students waste four years doing nothing but forgetting what they had learned in high school. The truth is that universities deliver the bachelor degree without any serious control of what the students have learned, that they give marks that are notoriously overvalued, that they show no rigour in their assessment of the students’ skills and talents. I have seen so many students leaving Viet Nam to study abroad after graduation, with the idea that once they are outside the country science miraculously rains from the sky and pervades their brains without them having to do the least effort. And I have seen so many of them disillusioned after having had to face reality; those who were successful either decided to stay abroad, or, when back home, were offered no opportunity to achieve a return on what they had invested as new skills, new talents and new knowledge. The truth is that the country is suffering a disastrous brain drain, that much of what is invested by families and by the State to train their children abroad is simply wasted by our inability to take advantage of it. The truth is that the most educated part of the population are so convinced of the low level of our universities and have so little confidence in their competence that they do their utmost to send their own children study abroad.

Among so many blatant examples, a typical illustration of our inability to organise ourselves to achieve a return on the investment of sending students study abroad concerns nuclear power. For over a decade, the country has been discussing seriously joining the nuclear club in order to comply with the ever growing energy demand of the population. For over a decade, we have been unable to create a centre in which to train the future scientists and engineers who could operate the future plant; a centre that would serve as a basis from which to send staff abroad to study for short periods and welcome them back to teach their fellow students and transfer to them the knowledge that they have acquired abroad; a centre in which to invite foreign experts for short periods to give lectures on specific topics; a centre that would make good use of the experience accumulated over the years with the research reactor that is operated in Da Lat. Instead, we have been sending students abroad without monitoring their progress and without preparing their return home; some students went to study abroad on their own initiative but when coming back were not offered any position in which they could have taken profit of what they had learned. As a result, we are still completely unprepared and some Vietnamese among the most competent in the field take argument of this failure to argue that Vietnam should give up his ambition to use nuclear power in a near future. Such is the truth.

A few years ago, a funding agency, NAFOSTED, has been created to allocate funds to scientific research, a praiseworthy initiative allowing for a more objective assessment of the respective merits of the proposed projects; the truth is that the allocations that are due to new projects since January 1st 2013 have not yet been awarded, more than a year later, and are kept blocked by the Ministry of Finances, causing major disarray and helplessness to the Minister of Sciences. Such is the truth.

One would think that in such a difficult context the scientific community close ranks and stick up for each other, encouraging teamwork, solidarity and collaboration between individuals. But such is not the truth, not at all. The truth is that each of the two or three particle physicists who are active in the country contribute to different experiments, precluding any hope to build some serious Vietnamese effort in the field. The truth is that learned societies are not enough active in promoting science and research and in helping the young generation to progress. Many do not even maintain a web site and make no serious effort to improve the quality of their publications. The truth is that NAFOSTED, the funding agency, makes no effort to encourage teamwork and federate individual initiatives. On the contrary, they require each proposal to spell out the details of the contribution of each individual in a given project rather than leaving such responsibility to the principal investigator.

We often hear complaints that the lack of adequate scientific instruments prevents Vietnamese research to progress. The truth is that I know of major instruments that had been given as gifts to Viet Nam by the Russians and stopped being operated after their departure by lack of competence available in the country. The truth is that a radio interferometer that had been given as a gift to Viet Nam by a Viet Kieu has been buried in a cupboard of a Ha Noi university for over 15 years; we unearthed it and a student of mine made his master thesis using it; a pen pusher of the university then realised that the item was missing on his inventory list and urged us to give it back; it has returned to its cupboard where it is likely to stay for ever. The truth is that a Nuclear Physics Department has spent a few million dollars to buy an accelerator which they do not know what to do with; indeed, such an accelerator would have brought good times to nuclear physicists some sixty years ago but, today, is used mostly by material scientists; however, the acquisition was made without consultation of the material science community, who were unaware of it and are not given a chance to exploit it now that it exists. The truth is that I have seen individuals plead for the acquisition of major expensive equipment, at the hundred million dollar scale or more, without even consulting their colleagues and without paying attention to the fact that nobody in the country has the skills and experience necessary for their proper use, operation and maintenance. The truth is that I know of modern machine tools, lathe and milling machine, that have been given to Viet Nam as gifts and have been sleeping in a garage for over a decade with no one using them by lack of competent operator. 

Having a university degree should be recognised as a sign of competence and skill and should promote the young graduate among the elite on which the nation counts to build its future. The truth is that it has no value at all, that the best way to get a good job is to give a well filled envelope under the table to your future boss; unfortunately, I have seen many such cases, including high school teachers and policemen. The truth is that having an uncle with some significant political power is your best chance to get a good job.  The truth is that the wages of a civil servant are too low for him to feed his family, that he must take a second job or do something similar to survive. The truth is that there is no difference of salary between who works hard and who does not even come to the office, except on occasions such as Tet to fetch his envelope. The truth is that the Vietnamese society has no respect for whom earns little money, and therefore no respect for teachers and scholars.  

A few years ago, the Prime Minister declared his intention to see 20’000 PhDs having graduated by 2020. The truth is that three of my former students, who made their PhD under joint supervision between Viet Nam and prestigious French universities, have not yet received their Vietnamese degree, after several years, in spite of the existence of a signed agreement between Viet Nam and France stating explicitly that after the defence of the thesis, the doctor degree should be awarded by both universities. The truth is that a student of mine, who is making her PhD under the Vietnamese system, has completed the writing of her thesis several months ago but has now to run through an incredible marathon of administrative quibbling and hair splitting: eight different oral presentations, a review by two referees – one of whom made comments revealing his/her lack of familiarity with the field – the requirement to collect fifteen positive assessments from fifty Vietnamese doctors to whom a short version of the thesis has been sent – and most of whom do not really understand what the thesis is about. Currently, PhD students must give a report every three months to the administration of the doctoral school on the progress of their work, as if the thesis supervisor were incompetent, unable, irresponsible, or crooked, and could not be trusted to do his job properly. One could think that such a Big Brother behaviour would prevent fraud in the award of doctor degrees, but the truth is that we regularly hear of cases of students buying their degree for high amounts of money or having their thesis written, or better cut-and-pasted, by specialists who earn their living this way.  

Pedantic names are used to impress people. When walking through the corridors of Vietnamese institutes or universities, you see many doors labelled Giám Đốc of this or Giám Đốc of that, but the truth is that the staff of the department of which this person is director consists often of a single person, himself, and the office is empty most of the time. I had students making their graduation dissertation with us from a supposedly prestigious class of a Ha Noi university namedHigh Energy Physics and Cosmology. The truth was that these students not only had no idea of what relativity and cosmology may mean, but they even were lacking the most rudimentary bases of elementary physics.

A few years ago, a case of plagiarism was revealed; a group of physicists, including two professors, one of them of high rank (representing Viet Nam in an international instance) had concocted an article cut-and-pasted from published material, to which they had added a few meaningless sentences, and had submitted it for publication to various journals of international audience. Some accepted it – it says a lot about their referee system – but a few noticed the fraud. The truth is that no action was taken to prevent such a bad event to repeat.

We must have the courage to face the truth. The point is not to blame anyone; there are many historical reasons why we are in such a situation. The point is not to make anyone feel guilty. The only one to be blamed is who refuses to face the truth. The truth is that we have to build the Vietnamese university of the future from scratch, that the kind of papering over the cracks that we have been using in the past decades leads nowhere. The truth is that it takes generations to achieve such a goal. Two thirds of the Vietnamese were born after Doi Moi. We need to rethink which kind of education and training we need, and can afford, to offer them. We must stop comparing Vietnamese universities with universities abroad, this is not only meaningless but, worse, misleading. We must set priorities, revise our views concerning the share between apprenticeship, professional schools, business schools and universities proper. We must have better ideas of how many medical doctors, engineers, teachers, architects, etc. the nation needs. And in particular more realistic ideas about how many economists, managers and businessmen. Better ideas about the share between the civil servant and private sectors. We no longer are in the eighties, when the problem was to collect bottles and cans and gather duck feathers, but we are not either at a stage where it makes sense to talk about Shanghai ranking and other utopias. The tasks that Nguyen Thi Binh undertook thirty years ago are not yet completed; they must be addressed in priority. Comparing Vietnamese universities with Cambridge, Harvard or Oxford is nothing but a bad joke.

 Such are the priorities, together with restoring morality and integrity in our practices. Education cannot lead anywhere when the best way to get a good job is to have money, or good connections, or an influent member in one’s family. Corruption is the worst enemy of education.

In such a landscape, what about the university that Ho Dac Di was preaching for? Of course, we cannot dream of seeing it soon become a reality at the scale of the nation. Building it from scratch takes generations, not simply a few years. No one has the magic wand that could make such a miracle possible. Having the courage of facing the truth is also being able to assess what we are able to achieve and to adjust our ambitions to it.

Yet, I should like to argue that we can afford to make room for sowing the seeds of some fundamental research at the frontier of current knowledge. It can only be made on a modest scale, excellence must take precedence over quantity. What does it imply?

First a selection of a few fields that the country is prepared to – and can afford to – support. Such a selection must take proper account of the promises of the particular field one wishes to develop: some fields have more unanswered questions than others, with good hope to see them answered in the coming few decades, and are closer than others to the frontiers of knowledge. It must take proper account of the financial support that is implied; money should not be wasted in constructing at home equipment that exists abroad and can be used by us at low expense; the money invested at home in new scientific equipment should be very critically discussed within broad circles including foreign expertise. It must take proper account of which talents and skills there are in the country; a field should be supported only under the condition that there exists at home a dynamic team having shown their ability at developing efficiently the particular field of research in which they are active. It should take proper account of the relation of the field to be supported with applied research and applications, even if this should not be a priority.

Another implication is the need to recognise merit. Here also, we must have the courage to face reality. The truth is that many university teachers simply read their lectures in text books and are unable to conduct any research work. We must deliver habilitation degrees to those who are able to construct and write their own lectures and to conduct research and we must give them decent wages. Wages that allow them to devote all their time and effort to teaching and research, wages that give them the dignity that they deserve. Today, a young researcher earns much less than a pen pusher working in a bank or in some joint venture company; he lacks consideration from his friends or family who have no respect for what he is doing but see only the low level of his remuneration; in order to survive, he must take a second job or teach twice as many hours than would be reasonable. Such is the truth. On such a basis we shall never be able to build the university that we need.  

What is urgent is to equip the youth with what is needed to have the courage to face reality, to look straight at the truth, to think critically and act accordingly. The priority is to train responsible adults. This does not exclude making modest room for supporting some fundamental research as long as it aims at excellence and can serve as a basis on which to build the university of tomorrow that Ho Dac Di was dreaming of in the late forties. But before investing in equipment, we must invest in people, we must invest in brains, we must build the teams who will be able to use, operate and maintain such equipment.  
Pierre Darriulat

[1] To quote just a few: – The more a teacher is gone beyond by his students, the more praise he deserves. – Higher education and research are twin brothers; the chair is but the anteroom of the laboratory. – University is not only the place where science is being taught, but also the place where it comes into being. – Research is a team work; it requires hard work and patient strain; it implies skills specific to the youth, being constantly on the look-out for a discovery in order to be able to catch the opportunity; good luck and attention go in hand with work, imagination and method. – Scientists must possess a broad cultural background in order to be more than skilful craftsmen trained in professional schools; their training must imply the development of all their intellectual and moral faculties, including sciences as well as arts. – Academic spirit is a specificity of higher education training [...]; it is complicity between student and teacher that leaves no room for abusing one’s authority; only then, through a relation without restraint, can critical faculty bloom in complete freedom – the most beautiful flower of the human mind, so crucial to science. – We must doubt when we study and have faith when we act. – One can bureaucratize scientists... but not Science. – What a good fortune it is for the scientist to have a job that mixes Science and Conscience; it is not enough to have a well filled brain; he must also have a blameless morality. – To all those who are fighting for freedom, University takes pride in swearing solemnly to see to the integrity of their intellectual legacy.

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