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President's Corner: Constraints on Freedom of Scholarship and Science

Most Science for Peace members are “knowledge workers” in the new “knowledge economy.” Increasingly, people in rich countries earn our living by producing and trading symbols—notably words, equations, maps, and musical notes—instead of physical goods. This surely is an improvement over my grandfather’s career; he spent 60 years walking back and forth across a field behind a horse and plow (later on a tractor) producing food and fiber. The knowledge economy also is improving the environment by decreasing our need for finite material resources. Let’s celebrate.

Yet there are many unresolved (barely even recognized) questions about the organization of our own work. We are finally becoming aware of these issues because of the growing political crisis involving Canadian researchers. (See, for example, ) Some of us are planning protest actions to defend the many institutions and jobs that the Canadian government has been eliminating.

Yet a deeper analysis is also required. It’s time now for privileged knowledge workers to review these issues ourselves in a sustained, serious investigation. Is our work “alienated labor”? We produce ideas and knowledge and then, like factory workers, no longer “own” our products or control their use. Perhaps, like the nuclear scientists at the Manhattan project, we should stop, think, and become more responsible for our own work.

How problematic are the current institutions of knowledge production? Admittedly, symbols are very different from material products and cannot be “alienated” in the sense that Marx meant the word. For one thing, information is not subject to the first law of thermodynamics—the conservation of energy. If I make a widget and you take it from me, I no longer have it. But ideas are different; if I write a poem or solve a mathematical problem, I can have it and so can you—and everyone else who learns it.

Knowledge is not scarce; we can share it with everyone—but for various reasons (some of them valid) we do not always do so. When and how to disseminate our knowledge responsibly is sometimes arguable—and frequently restricted legally, e.g. by intellectual property rights, national security concerns, or publishers’ routines for choosing and publicizing manuscripts.

Many Science for Peace members are supported by public funds to generate knowledge, so it is fair for the public to ascertain which of our projects are good investments to benefit society. It is politically fair to demand that scholars and scientists really be “worth our salt.” Unfortunately, however, no objective gauge is (or probably ever will be) available to ascertain this, for the verdict depends not only on calculable costs and benefits but also on personal values. Nevertheless, all of us probably ask ourselves during “dark nights of the soul” whether we are really serving humankind optimally.

Who should make such judgments? Normally, and preferably, researchers validate their results mutually by submitting to “peer review,” whereby only accredited members of their profession judge the importance and quality of their projects. Lately, however, without publicly declaring that it was doing so, the current government of Canada seems to have decided that many scientific studies either are not worth the price or even are antithetical to the success of our economy. Even universities are being re-structured so as to foster research with commercial applicability.

This is not merely a Canadian phenomenon. Friends in other countries have been telling me that exactly the same constraints are being placed on their own scholars and scientists. However, I do not know of any comparative study that has been made, so I cannot guess whether it is happening only in a few countries or whether it is a world-wide trend. Nor can I say what historic changes are driving the trend, or which interventions have successfully reversed it.

But fortunately, Science for Peace comprises scholars with sufficient qualifications and research skills to investigate the situation ourselves and reach a credible assessment. Besides writing protest letters about science policy to Ottawa, we should investigate the situation in a systematic way. I suggest that we do so.

The studies that seem most seriously in jeopardy at present are conducted by scientists in government-run institutions. Some of our members are already devoting their attention primarily to those cases, and every day the newspapers report the shutdown of yet another research institution. Several scholars throughout Canada are compiling lists, and the Canadian Association of University Teachers is launching a two-year campaign to oppose the “muzzling of scientists.”

However, the constraints on scholarship are far more common than these newsworthy cases, and we require a study of the institutions and vested interests that facilitate or impede various kinds of research. I intend to engage in this investigation for several months this summer, interviewing scholars who have some first-hand acquaintance with muzzling, or who are studying relevant institutional developments. Some studies are already going on. For example, I went to a debate recently over the pros and cons of commercializing research in the universities. If we can bring some of these researchers together, their findings can be shared in a conference in a year or so. The proceedings may be helpful to CAUT and other activist campaigns. However, because many constraints on research are ubiquitous and traditional, anyone organizing such a project must specify a narrow range of phenomena to explore. I suppose we must exclude certain types of knowledge, such as tacit knowledge, artistic creations (e.g. in music, fiction, and drama), computer and other digital research, and journalism. “Tacit” knowledge consists of capacities that cannot be taught through language. For example, some of us (not I) can ride a bike, but we cannot teach others by telling them how. If such tacit knowledge can be taught at all it is only through personal contact—demonstrations rather than written manuals. People working in the performing arts and in such fields as dentistry generate tacit knowledge that our study cannot cover. (Anyway, I don’t know whether it is ever suppressed.)

Second, I would hesitate to include the suppression of Internet knowledge. It is an immensely important and urgent topic—probably the most fateful one of all, if you listen to Ron Diebert (please watch his TED lecture)— but there may be no Science for Peace members who could do the work. The mysterious realm of hacking, building firewalls, and negotiating international governance of the Internet is probably beyond the scope of this project.

Third, I would exclude the constraints against artistic production, though the arts certainly are censored at times, as we all know from the cases of Salman Rushdie and Boris Pasternak. However, there are already organizations that defend those knowledge workers better than we could: PEN, for example, and in the UK the Index on Censorship, which was created by Soviet dissidents as a way of publishing their samizdat writings. It still provides opportunities for censored writing to be published. Fourth, journalists also sometimes have their findings suppressed (and in Russia they are even murdered), but I do not propose that we include them in our study of scholarship and science. They have excellent champions in such organizations as the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the various Civil Liberties Unions. In California there is “Project Censored,” which identifies the 25 most censored news stories of each year, and even publishes them.

I hope that some Science for Peace friends will join me in interviewing scientists or colleagues from their own disciplines about their research experiences and fears, including times when they may have self-censored in order to avoid problems. Those interviews can inform our agenda for a conference to be held in a year or so.

In 1991 a Science for Peace Committee produced the “Toronto Resolution,” which consisted of twelve considerations that should be addressed by all codes of ethics for scientists. This meeting occurred at the end of a Royal Society conference on “Constraints on Freedom of Scholarship and Science.” Several members of Science for Peace’s ethics committee have reassembled, intending to revisit the question today. Our focus will not be on revising ethical principles for individual researchers but on the ethical issues involved in research institutions. We hope that a new discussion can be generated concerning the constraints on scholarly and scientific knowledge.

This analysis may look beyond the simpler forms of censorship and consider certain basic vectors that shape the quality of intellectual products. Let me mention a few such determinants.

One vector is the intellectual environment. The excellence of research depends initially on the importance of the question that is being addressed by the study. Brilliant questions are rare, so studies of trivial questions are common—but worth little.

My teacher, Karl Popper, used to say that a genius was a person with a great nose for interesting problems. But geniuses apparently flock together—you find them in certain times and places more than others. Intellectual stimulation requires contact with others who are different from oneself. Dense city life is more stimulating than country life, as Richard Florida has pointed out, and some city universities are more stimulating than others. An aspiring researcher will go to the most interesting work environment possible, but the social setting is only one of the factors that enhance the likelihood that she will produce wonderful knowledge, and it is not a vector that astute policymaking can rectify.

Another vector is support—both moral and financial. Academics submit proposals for funds—or more often they tailor their research proposals to fit the kinds of projects for which funding has already been allocated. Thus the government or major corporations influence the nature of research by making grants available for specific types of investigation. This is especially obvious when a huge project is designed that will employ thousands of scholars—a Manhattan project, a trip to the moon, or the Large Hadron Collider. Probably no amateur will ever win a Nobel Prize again by fiddling with test tubes in her garage. Of course, though we recognize this limitation we do not call it censorship, nor do we consider the garage science project “constrained” — though in a way, it is.

We do call it constraint, however, when a research laboratory is shut down by authorities who evidently dislike the findings that are emerging there. This is more likely the fate of a government-owned lab than a university facility because government employees are contractually constrained from attacking their government’s policies while it employs them. (Military officers are likewise muzzled until they retire.) Public universities, on the other hand, generally uphold the principles of academic freedom. (However, in some countries private institutions such as religious universities do not have to promise academic freedom to their professors.) When addressing the funding vector, an astute analysis of the decision-making procedures of research institutions may greatly release the constraints on research.

Finally, the researcher needs to disseminate her findings. Submitting the manuscript can be an adventure in itself, for there’s a critic lurking behind every tree. This is the stage where the suppression of knowledge normally becomes apparent. Nice people who aver a deep commitment to freedom of expression and intellectual debate often try to silence views that they disapprove. Not only governments, but also publishers, corporate interests, competing scholars, and nationalistic or faith groups sometimes try to prevent the dissemination of ideas that they dislike. Many academics can tell grim stories about the suppression of their work on grounds other than its quality. (I myself have two books remaining unpublished because they would have offended certain people.)

Peer reviewing (especially by anonymous reviewers) is our preferred means of preventing the suppression of research, and it may be the optimum procedure, but nothing is perfect. As an editor of a magazine I must admit that on occasion our editorial board rejects a submission that is cogent and well-written, just because we dislike its conclusions. That’s simply human and we’ll never eliminate all such instances of subjective bias.

However, maybe we can spot certain systematic distortions. Conceivably our universities and research centres can be improved by procedural innovations that liberate scholarly production. If you are interested in participating in this project, let’s talk about it.

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