8 thoughts on “Academic freedom: bullshit?

  1. Michael Cook (@mtrc)

    “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.”

    I might be misunderstanding what everyone’s talking about here when they use the word ‘control’, but science is already quite susceptible to fads and hot topics that attract disproportionate funding and cause grants to be awkwardly crowbarred to fit whatever the funding bodies claim is important right now (and I say that as someone who benefits from working in a somewhat fad-dy area of science). Would handing this control to people who are even more disconnected from academia improve things?

    I can see there being an argument that this is precisely how you improve connections between public and academics, but in the short term I feel steps like that would be pretty harmful. Science and research in general (as a process, rather than specific topics being researched) is so poorly communicated with people I feel it would be hard for them to make decisions about what directions research should take. Would we find ourselves shifting towards harder application work rather than theoretical stuff, simply because it’s easier to communicate its worth to the people deciding what should happen?

  2. Ali TT (@AWTaylor83)

    I think there are different types of academic freedoms- the one to do whatever research you want and the other to be allowed to undertake research without having to jump through endless bureaucratic hoops. From my experience, it seems many academic staff risk becoming detached from their research (groups) due to the shear weight of admin needed- writing funding proposals, filling out REF and other HE assessments, sitting on committees etc. I don’t think many scientists would argue that research money should simply be given, blank cheque and no questions asked. We all realise and welcome that all research, be it fundamental or applied, should offer real and tangible improvements to our current knowledge and I feel your first paragraph somewhat misrepresents the scientific community.

    As for greater involvement of the public is science funding and decision making. Firstly, I strongly encourage attempts to communicate and educate the public about science and there is nothing wrong with consultation of the public on science issues. However, I’m not sure that the public should get direct power to decide what is funded. There is a reason why scientists, (like lawyers, doctors, civil servants and many other professionals) train for years and years- it makes them best placed to make decisions and judgements in their fields. Yes, the external input of politicians, funders and the public is important and in some cases will over-ride the scientist’s wishes but I don’t think complete control should be handed over to the public simply because research is taxpayer funded.

    There are other reasons why public control of science research would require very careful consideration. How does public consultation represent the wishes of the general public or just that of the most vocal and active? We can see in the US with creationism v evolution that a very well organised campaign group can come to dominate the discussion. I’ve also seen in local issues where small, NIMBY-based campaigns can overwhelm reasoned debate. Finally, I’d argue that the public already strongly influences science. Firstly, through the power to elect the policy makers that will decide how the money should be spent. Secondly, through already strong campaign groups. Thirdly, through its wallet the consumer exerts significant control over science- cheaper energy, better cars, smarter technology, tastier but healthier food etc. This directly leads industrial research and has a huge knock-on effect on the academic community as well.

  3. Pingback: Has climate science moved from prediction to explanatory mode? « through the looking glass

  4. @tomstafford

    Is honesty bullshit because everybody sometimes tells lies? Or truth bullshit because you can never tell the whole truth?

    The issue about academic freedom isn’t that research should be totally free (not possible, as you point out), but that some kinds of control are undesirable.

  5. angevf

    I think you are misunderstanding what is meant by academic freedom. It’s more about preventing Uni employers, management , govts etc from dictating what is and isn’t worth researching, examining or writing about.


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