"Academic freedom – that's why we were marching"
26 April 2017
On Saturday 21st of April, scientists around the world took to the streets to defend their academic freedom. Rector Herman Van Goethem explains why he participated.
On Saturday 21st of April, scientists around the world took to the streets to defend their academic freedom. Scientists don’t like marches. Their world is defined by fact-based debate, not chasing after slogans. They have decided to take to the streets, however, because they feel that President Trump’s policies are a threat to everything they stand for. Scientists can now be muzzled, and research into climate change and vaccination must make way for “alternative facts”. These are trends that we are also seeing closer to home.
Academic freedom is universal in nature and vocation. In essence, it is about the freedom of searching, doubting individuals, who begin thinking for themselves through speculation and observation, independent of tradition or faith. Scientists have occasionally paid dearly for their curiosity. A research question can undermine certainties and reveal disturbing facts. Sometimes it can raise fundamental questions of a social, ethical or legal nature. Results can be misappropriated. All of that makes science vulnerable to financial pressures and political manipulation. That scientists must justify their reasoning is obvious; this does not mean their hands should be tied.
Can scientists still think the unthinkable or publish research results freely, no matter how disturbing they are? Academic freedom is coming under increasing pressure, even in democratic countries. Just think of the funding that is available for applied research, despite the huge value of fundamental research, too.
In Eastern Europe, there is a growing tendency to muzzle researchers, requiring them to comply with the wishes of the powers that be. The conservative Polish government, for example, would like to transform the new historical museum in Gdansk into an instrument of unilateral propaganda, and the complicit anti-Semitism among the Polish population during Nazi occupation (cf. Jan Grabowski, Hunt for the Jews) is being increasingly played down by the government and the educational system. In Hungary, Prime Minister Orban wishes to close an internationally reputed university because it refuses to toe the government’s line. In Turkey, the situation is much worse for universities, researchers and politicians.
Science is at risk of being offered up to feelings and political sentiment: I don’t like it, so I’ll ignore it. In such a situation, science policy involves banning and penalising what doesn’t suit the order of the day, while alternative facts are carelessly sent out into the world. American scientists are already transferring their climate change data to Europe because of fears that President Trump’s denial could lead to the disappearance of vital scientific source materials.
A society that no longer takes its education and research systems seriously is standing on the edge of the abyss. Academic freedom – that’s why we were marching.
Caroline Pauwels, Rector of VUB
Herman Van Goethem, Rector of UAntwerp