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The Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) Annual Award for Researcher of the Year went to Assistant Professor Klāvs Sedlenieks from the Faculty of Communication at the Department of Communication Studies. Sedlenieks leads and conducts research on both international and local projects and actively participates in events aimed at popularising science. He is also the author or co-author of several publications and books. He is an opinion leader in Latvia and actively involves young scientists in research.

This year seven candidates were nominated in the category Researcher of the Year.

Sedlenieks started studying medicine at Riga Medical Institute (now – RSU), transferred to the University of Latvia to study philology, and finally found an excellent combination of both subjects in the field of anthropology. He obtained his bachelor's degree in social anthropology in Lithuania, a master's degree in the UK, presented his dissertation in Estonia making use of opportunities offered by Europe, and received his PhD in Latvia.

Klāvs Sedlenieks was the first person to teach anthropology in Latvia in 1993 at RSU (then the Medical Academy of Latvia).

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What does the Researcher of the Year award mean to you?

In my opinion the award is proof that my colleagues and students at RSU have taken notice of and appreciate what I do. It makes me feel that the things I have accomplished to date have made a good impression.

And it is no wonder that we have been noticed, because we have been very active. Especially in the last five years. Our department has done things that have only rarely been achieved at RSU until now. We submitted a project proposal for the Horizon 2020 call for proposals, for example, and received financing from the European Commission. We had to work very hard to prepare a high-quality project proposal to get the financing, because only 6-7% of all applicants receive financing in this programme. The competition is always fierce, but we were among the lucky ones. The financing we received from RSU was very useful in developing the project proposal and submitting it. It was a substantial piece of work – the project proposal contained approximately 70 pages. The project Closing the Gap between Formal and Informal Institutions in the Balkans (INFORM) within the Horizon 2020 programme has just ended – we had been running this project since 2016.

We have also been pioneers in many other activities – as promoters, implementers and leaders of projects.

What do you mean when you say “we”?

By “we” I mean the group of anthropologists at RSU who participate in the aforementioned activities. At the beginning it was only me and Assistant Professor Agita Lūse, whereas at the moment there are eight of us and our numbers are growing. We have attracted two new colleagues who have just finished their doctoral studies and continue their research by publishing articles and publications in various journals etc. This way RSU brings in new blood, as doctoral graduates from all over the world can apply for jobs at RSU and apply for financing by the Ministry of Education and Science. Andre Thiemann, for example, will start working with us shortly. He is a researcher from Germany who will be giving lectures and conduct research at RSU for three years. Another young scientist is lecturer Ieva Puzo who has already worked with us on the project Closing the Gap between Formal and Informal Institutions in the Balkans.

What are your present interests as a researcher? Is your focus still on the Balkans?

Even though the aforementioned project on the Balkans has not yet been completed, because we still need to write up the project reports, work has already begun on a new two-year project called State Performance and Biosocial Relations (RELATE.LV). This project is financed by the Latvian Council of Science.

This project is aimed at researching the interaction between the beliefs the population of Latvia has about their biosocial relations (usually denoted with the term "kinship") and the ways these people act as a part of the state. We will also explore the ways in which public institutions try to regulate areas linked to the population’s kinship relationships. There used to be a belief that with the development of the modern state the role of kinship was decreasing, but lately an understanding has arisen that the regulation of kinship relationships is one of the central activities of the state. The phrase "valsts īstenošana" is our Latvian translation of the English term "state performance". It refers to the idea that the state is not a continuously existing unit, but is rather continuously "performed". Just like we play our personalities or roles, we also play the state. The result of that is what we generally call "the state". Kinship is essential in this context and that is what we will be researching.

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Lecturer Klāvs Sedlenieks on 6 April 2019 at the Riga Latvian Society House during the Award Ceremony where he received the Researcher of the Year Award. The Award was presented by Vice-Rector Agrita Kiopa.

Can anyone become a researcher? Or does it require special skills or personality traits?

First and foremost the person must have a wish to discover new things, and to explore. Curiosity is a necessary character trait, as well as being interested in unusual ideas. The task of a researcher is to find gaps in the existing body of knowledge and beliefs and to explore them. If a person does not have any interest, then there is nothing to research. You need the ability to look at the world from a different perspective! The task of a researcher is to talk about things that people do not generally accept and challenge these beliefs. There would be little use for scientists to only talk about things that are already accepted and approved by society. A scientist should try to look beyond the generally accepted and show alternatives to society. 

You did not become a researcher in a day – what were the teachers who taught you about research?

I think I have always been in a privileged situation, in a way, because I have a few scientists in my family, as well as having many well-educated relatives. I would like to mention my grandfather Valentīns Būmeisters who was a doctor and one of the founders of endocrinology in Latvia and a very well-known doctor in Latvia in his time. His daughter, my mother's sister, is Professor Aija Žileviča. She must have taught microbiology to most health care professionals working in Latvia today! Both of them worked at the Riga Medical Institute. My interest in academia grew partly due to their influence. They were, of course, succeeded by other teachers whose work shaped me as an anthropologist – Arvīds Žīgs, my first anthropology lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Maurice Bloch and Henrietta Moore at the London School of Economics, and Marilyn Strathern and Keith Hart at Cambridge, but that is another story.

You started studying medicine, so how did you end up in social anthropology?

There is a logic behind it. I was always drawn to medicine, but I was simultaneously also interested in something more artistic, like literature. As a teenager I was active in various informal newspaper interest groups for students. For example, I wrote for the newspaper Pionieris (The Pioneer). I studied medicine for two years, but then it dawned on me that I must do something to develop my literary talents. I took the entrance exams and was admitted to the Faculty of Philology at the University of Latvia. After an exchange semester at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas (Lithuania) in 1991, where I attended a course in anthropology among other things, I, however, came to understand that anthropology perfectly combines medicine, literature and a philosophical view of life. I returned to Latvia, took the exams at the end of the semester, and transferred to Lithuania. I finished my bachelor's studies in social anthropology there.

What currently concerns you in Latvian or even European or global science?

I am concerned about several global processes. One of them is so-called neo-liberal governance that is dominated by the idea that research should only be financially supported if it can be specifically proven to be used to improve our daily living conditions, or that its results can be sold on the market. The results of many academic disciplines, especially in the social sciences and humanities, cannot be directly marketed even though they improve our lives! How can we, for example, create a better and more accurate taxation system or public administration? Ask social scientists! Ask philosophers what is right and just! Many think erroneously that such questions are self-evident, but that usually means that they lack the knowledge to understand how little is still known. 

These policies are moving in a direction of supporting only measurable things and this results in the pursuit of quantity. They ask ‘How can we evaluate the researchers’ work?’ and answer ‘By the number of publications, of course!’ This results in a massive publication industry. Humans are smart – if they are given criteria for receiving an award they will find various ways to fulfil them. For example, you can write articles as a co-author with two other scientists and then each of you will have three articles to your name.

I may be exaggerating a bit, but there was a time when articles on scientific research were only occasionally written and published. A professor might just publish one book in their life, but then it was something really meaningful. Nowadays one has to write publications quickly, and a lot of them, in order to satisfy requirements. There are even some scientific disciplines that employ specialised writers, because researchers have no time to write them themselves!

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Lecturer Klāvs Sedlenieks at the RSU Scientific Conference in 2016.

We must ask ourselves at this point what it is that we really want – does the number of articles actually improve our lives? No, it does not! The fact that there are great number of articles does not help us to learn more or to expand our knowledge of the world. Very often it is just a waste of paper. But we wanted a better life! What is the correlation between "more articles" and "better life"? There is none!

I am not even talking about the extremely dishonest publications industry that flourishes at the expense of scientists. Publishers earn enormous amounts of money only because they use the work of authors, editors and reviewers that is paid for with taxpayer money. The profit, however, is kept by the publishers. It turns out that profit margins in this industry are higher than the profit earned, for example, by companies like Apple, Google or Amazon. This is absurd! In addition the knowledge in these articles, which has been paid for by taxpayers, is ultimately not available to them. They have to buy it back from these same publishers. The business of academic publications is among the most dishonest and strange varieties of capitalism. Successful, ordinary journals are able to earn around 12%, while academic publishers earn three times that amount, but only because they do not pay for the production of the content. We end up paying for it – also in Latvia. Try to go to them as an ordinary taxpayer to see the end product – you will not succeed! Publishers want taxpayers to pay again, and to pay an unreasonably high price no less.

You have been working as a researcher for a considerable time now. What accomplishments do you feel most satisfied with or proud of?

I am happy with what I have already accomplished, of course, I do, however, consider my research work only a good beginning, because better things are yet to come.