First of all, I am no philosopher, I only have some notions and I will (mostly) rely on these. Now, why am I talking about philosophy all of a sudden? Because I will question the concept of academic freedom, which overlaps greatly with the concept of freedom, unsurprisingly. Freedom has been studied thoroughly in philosophy and I have some basic knowledge that I will use to bring the reader to a question that has been bothering me lately.
To begin with, complete freedom is a paradox in and of itself. If everyone was free to do as they please, then some individuals would be free to impose their will on weaker or more vulnerable ones, thus the weaker ones would not be free. Society, laws, duties, these limit our “complete” freedom to ensure that we all share a similar freedom (albeit not perfect). This concept is called : external freedom. The freedom to do as one pleases as long as it remains within the law and does not impede on another person’s freedom.
Now I come to academic freedom. In a sense, it is similarly controlled by law. I would even say that ethics have also a strong weight on the shoulders of science (we do have ethical committees). Far too often have we seen scientific discoveries used as weapons of war or for other harmful purposes. In a sense, external freedom plays a role here : scientific research should not be used to hurt other people (nor impede on their freedom). Obviously, a scientist is not in control of the uses of all their discoveries and blaming someone studying ballistics for gunshot wounds does not make sense. Research thus needs to be controlled in some way, yet remain free enough that it can actually progress towards new discoveries. More importantly, it needs to be free from the influence of their countries, politics, companies (hence the “conflict of interest” statement in scientific papers). Publishing a paper about a disastrous political decision in Atlantis as an Atlantean scientist should not have consequences on either your health, nor employment, nor anything else.
Now, there are expectations when it comes down to science. The use of tangible proofs, the documentation of the method, the fact that one has to be open to discussion… Any scientist should study what they wish, in return, they have to provide results according to the scientific method. There is a social contract between the scientist and society. However, are all scientists able to study what they wish to study? They have the freedom to do so, sure. Have they got the capacity to do so? Let me illustrate my question with a “normal” life example. I am free to possess a yacht… that much is true. The fact that I am free to possess a yacht does not mean in any way that I am able to buy a yacht. Thus comes the question : if one is not capable of doing something, are they free to do it?
As for the yacht, science needs money, some fields need more than others, but the bare minimum expected is to pay the scientist for their work. Nowadays, science runs with the help of grants (around 30% as a rule of thumb), which are generally predetermined for a specific topic. There is some room for adaptation, sure, but the money has to be spent on research about “X”. This fact alone means that society, donations, state policies, foundations and more tend to have a say in the topics that are being studied. Research is free to evolve within the confine of the grants. However, one could argue that science owes to research what the society needs, or at least that a strong part of the money dedicated to scientific research should go towards solving societal problems…
What does the society need? Well, we have a major environmental crisis on our hands to be fair. Are scientists still free to study new CO2-heavy fuels? Do they still have the right to develop new fossil fuel based solutions? Clearly, there is a consensus that this is NOT the solution… We already have some solutions, but in order to accelerate the transition or protect more people, we should dive deeper into the potential scientific knowledge that will help us overcome the climate and biodiversity crises, and do this as a society.
I would like to add a final point, one more question to ponder, one that haunts my mind regularly, like a familiar ghost. Are we ready to make some sacrifices now, give up a tiny bit of our freedom right away in order not to be forced to give more away later? Whether we like it or not, climate change is already upon us (and let’s not talk about the biodiversity collapse). We have to address it and give up on some things now, otherwise we will have to give up on even more (way more) later. The good news is that we already have solutions, they happen to be detailed in the latest IPCC report. Society just needs a push. Not a push. A shove.