We can’t simply be allowed to research freely – we have to be able to – Fabian Schmidt

We can’t simply be allowed to research freely – we have to be able to – Fabian Schmidt

Even in Germany, academic freedom requires improvement through long-term perspectives, reasonable visa-granting systems for foreign researchers, and in changing our thinking about how we value results

In Germany, academic freedom is anchored in the statutes of our research organisations and is therefore, in theory, ensured. And yet, academia today involves an ever-lengthening career phase, wherein researchers spend more time in fixed-term contracts. These, concurrent with the bottleneck at the transition to permanent posts, create pressure to suppress unusual, risky order even just ambitious research projects.

Many projects, in fact, can only be realised through applications for third-party funding, which are considered by a review board. In circumstances like these, risky or unusual project proposals are at a disadvantage. Let’s imagine that a researcher applies for the means to test a new physics theory that explains all references to dark matter without needing “dark matter”. The majority of professionals in this field would assume that this theory would prove untenable and may therefore be tempted to classify the project as ‘risky’. This assessment is based on the fact that a negative result in this case (not unlikely, since many clever minds have already tried to address this problem themselves) would not be considered a success. This is, of course, a fallacy, for the falsification of a theory undoubtedly represents a scientific advance. In fact, it would not do right by science to suppress research of this kind

Naturally, this fact is obvious to all colleagues in the field. However, there can still arise an implicit bias in comparing different applications, such as those that promise a ‘guaranteed discovery’. For this reason, it is important that the research community treats the supposedly less interesting ‘negative’ results with the importance they bring to the framework of the sciences.

"Short-term research funding tends toward less ambitious projects that are incremental rather than revolutionary"

Another aspect is the duration of research funding, from third-party sources in general, as well as research posts for young researchers in particular. Both are usually limited to three years or less. For an ambitious project, this can be a tight timeline. Given that the success of research is measured in publications, this support only works for projects that can guarantee they can publish within this timeframe. An early-career scholar whose post only runs for three years and who does not manage to produce any publications during this period is going to have a hard time finding subsequent employment – even when it is likely that a major breakthrough could occur within the next year. Funding with a time scale of five years instead of three can thus make a major difference.

Of course, in reality the situation is not so black and white. Often, one can divide projects into stages and publish interim results. Still, short-term research funding tends toward less ambitious projects that are incremental rather than revolutionary.

„In particular, researchers from Iran and China must endure long waits before they can receive a visa for Germany"

A further and less discussed obstacle for academic freedom in Germany is the freedom to travel. From my own experience, I know that at conferences in Germany, one or more participants must often cancel due to visa problems. It is clear that this has a negative impact on science. In particular, researchers from Iran and China must endure long waits before they can receive a visa for Germany, even when they can supply a written invitation from a German research institution. Often, entire months pass before applicants are notified of their status, and the outcome of the process remains uncertain. It is important that we remain conscious that this is not just an “Iranian” or “Chinese” problem, but rather that research in Germany also suffers as a result.

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