Advisory body KNAW stands up for academic freedom

Photo: DUB

Dutch researchers have been saying for years that their resources are way too limited. As long as government funding for research lags behind in comparison with other countries, researchers will be forced to jump through hoops from one project grant to the next, which is why many of them apply for funding from organisations like the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMW).

But a report (link in Dutch) published by the KNAW committee shows that most of these organisations' budgets have been earmarked for strategic and thematic research, which means that researchers can't choose their own research topic. The academy warns that this situation has a profound impact on academic freedom, while researchers must be free to conduct their research, share their findings and teach without interference or penalty.

It is essential that researchers can conduct unfettered research that stems from curiosity, argues KNAW's committee members, stressing that the government and financing institutions must ensure that sufficient funding must be made available for research on themes they do not consider strategic. Last year, another KNAW committee also concluded that the "balance" in academic research has been completely lost.

Thematic research is not always a bad thing, but there are tensions “between academic freedom on the one hand and the social responsibility of science on the other”,  the report argues. But there other fields of tension as well: third parties such as private corporations, which includes oil companies or the pharmaceutical industry, often collaborate in strategic research.

The report's authors warn that research should not become too dependent on such partnerships. They not only fear an unwanted impact on the research itself, “but also on the scientific research agenda or the curriculum”.

Another concern expressed by the committee members is the "embedding requirement" necessary to apply for the Veni and Vidi grants. Currently, researchers must have a statement from a research institution confirming that they have permission to use the facilities (Veni) or that they are entitled to a permanent contract (Vidi). These requirements were introduced by NWO and ZonMW partly to curb the rush on research funds.

The committee wonders whether researchers have become too dependent on the support of the envisaged institution. After all, these grants are intended for “talented and creative researchers to conduct their own innovative research line”. 

Additionally, the report raises a number of complex questions in its epilogue, including how academic freedom can be protected during collaborations with undemocratic countries, and how researchers can resist self-censorship if some of the public does not agree with their research outcomes. Last but not least, the committee wonders about the responsibility of students in protecting not only their own academic freedom, but that of their lecturer as well.

The KNAW plans to engage in talks and online discussions on academic freedom more frequently in the near future. This new report will serve as a starting point for the discussions. “This is a recurring topic that will always need to be adapted to new contexts and will always be subject to revision”, said KNAW's president Ineke Sluiter during the report's online launch. She considers it a paradox that academic freedom “is a freedom that is often best protected by governments not interfering with it”.

This is not the first time that a KNAW committee examineds how free researchers are to carry on their activities. In 2018, when a parliamentary majority feared that researchers were burdened by self-censorship and a lack of diversity of perspectives, the organisation concluded that the independence of Dutch researchers is in good shape, but we must be careful that the increased importance of project funding does not lead to "unwanted influence".