“They’ve got more choice”. Street art in Deptford, East London.
Freedom is one of those words – like fairness, science, truth, beauty – which is so complex and/ or relative in its application any straightforward articulation of it really should be avoided. And yet it is – like fairness, science, truth, beauty – all too often dimly bandied about as if it was universally discernible, if only we had the chance to see it.
Without getting lost in reams of social theory, what at first may look like freedom often masks intricate systems of control and the freedom of one often curtails that of others. We live in societies, on a finite planet, all subject to the laws of physics. The trick is keeping an eye on the uneven distribution of the various freedoms available.
So it was fun to hear the following at the SciFoo camp last weekend, in the context of discussing public accountability and science funding: “Scientists bristle at attacks on their academic freedom, but the whole idea of academic freedom is bullshit” (Chatham House rule, so I’m not free to let you know who said this, appropriately enough).
The freedom for scientists to do what they want is routinely curtailed through social norms within what is, let’s face it, a rather stuffy community as well as formal systems like peer review. Science doesn’t let itself be free, so why does it moan at others? Often this is for the best. If all scientists were free to do whatever they wanted all sorts of time would be wasted. It’s not so much the idea of scary Frankenstein-style uncontrollable monsters spinning out of labs everywhere I’m worried about as much as people pissing about trying to make perceptual motion machines. Science checks itself; quite right too.
To bring this back to science policy, seeing as scientists’ freedoms are so routinely curtailed, why not extend who gets control it, at least to include those who fund it? (i.e. the public for publicly funded research). There is a separate question about who is best placed to judge any particular aspect of control in science, but that is separate issue: some judges of some aspects of scientific work may well sit outside the scientific community.
Importantly, this doesn’t necessarily mean science would become even more controlled than it already is. Indeed, scientists who are annoyed by the various limitations placed upon them might find allies outside their community: PhD students fed up by working conditions, postdocs annoyed at lack of job security, junior lecturers who wished they had more time to do engagment work, etc. The involvement of the public in building a case for libel reform in the UK is a nice example (the limitation they are fighting doesn’t come from inside science, but the model is a good one).
Go on, call bullshit on the idea of academic freedom. You might even find it liberating.