Academic Freedoms – Cornelis Menke

Academic Freedoms – Cornelis Menke

“Academic freedom” (German: Wissenschaftsfreiheit) does not refer to a single value, but to several, which often stand in each other’s way. This holds true even when we view the concept as freedom of research, apart from concerns about teaching and learning in the classroom. The expression libertas philosophandi, to which the modern term refers and which can be traced back to the seventeenth century, has always denoted multiple freedoms. There are also multiple aspects of freedom of research that can be specified such as who should be included – the single researcher? Research teams? Organisations? “Science” itself? Which actions or decisions should be protected (or supported) – the choice of topics? Of research approaches? Of theories? Of publications? Where should this protection or support reside – in tenure? In funding?

The value of the individual types of freedom of research depends, not least of all, on the answer to the question of what goal freedom of research should serve. Philosopher of science Torsten Wilholt has differentiated three fundamental types of answers: first, freedom of research might be understood as a fundamental right; second, as necessary for the progress of science; finally, as the protection of science from political influence. Clearly these goals can stand in conflict with each other, and they each establish different forms of freedom of research.

The second goal, that of scientific progress, is particularly central for the philosophy of science. The type of freedom of research that this goal establishes is primarily understood as the right of individual researchers to choose their research problems and methods freely. This serves scientific progress for several reasons: first, the individual choice of problems and methods ensures a diversity of research approaches appropriate for unsettled questions; second, it protects divergent and original approaches; third, it accounts for the fact that the knowledge of which problems are important and which research approaches are fruitful and promising is readily available only in the scientific community. Philosopher Michael Polanyi writes in ‘The Republic of Science’ that individual freedom of research is essential for the type of co-operation characteristic of the scientific community; ‘Scientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment are in fact cooperating as members of a close-knit organisation.’

‘Resource-intensive research projects often stand in competition with each other, and require a third party’s judgment of their originality and fruitfulness’

But even when freedom of research – the type substantiated in the goal of scientific progress – is understood, justifiably, as the right of the individual, this cannot be the whole story. Viewing this as an individual right pushes up against its limits, where diversity, originality and fruitfulness of research approaches cannot be fostered at the level of the individual researcher alone

Research projects that require working groups or even larger networks limit individual freedoms at least partially. Resource-intensive projects often stand in competition with each other, and require a third party’s judgment of their originality and fruitfulness, and in this case, freedom ought not to be granted to the individual as much as to the representatives of academic disciplines. With interdisciplinary projects – large or small – and those in emerging fields, disciplines may also have a conservative effect, especially with decisions regarding the establishment of new fields of study (some of the most important decisions for scientific development), which can only really be made at the organisational level. These decisions cannot be made for purely so-called “scientific” reasons – including references to “scientific excellence” – because the question of which fields deserve research support is not a purely scientific one.

To speak of the freedom of research as a freedom of science or scholarship obscures these differences: Insofar as the freedom of research serves the development of science, this is not limited through outside influences alone, but also through the forms of research organisation that don’t serve research well – considering the diversity of the sciences, it becomes clear that there is no single answer to the question of which form freedom of research should take.

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