“Scientists cannot simply think outside their preconceptions.”

So academic freedom is at risk, but what exactly are we talking about when we talk about academic freedom? To illustrate this, philosopher and historian of science Lukas Verborght and sociologist Jan Willem Duyvendak asked twenty scientists from different disciplines to think about eight topics, such as China’s influence on Dutch science and university diversity policy. Conclusion of the collection Academic freedoms in the Netherlands It is that we should not talk about one academic freedom, but about academic freedoms, as the translator Verburget says.

Is the freedom of scientists in the Netherlands really at stake?
“Compared to countries like Poland, Hungary or China, where politicians actively interfere in universities and scientific practices, the freedom of academics is relatively good in the Netherlands. But this does not mean that we should take it for granted – it is certainly under pressure, for example due to pressures Competitiveness, the growing number of burnouts and political and economic pressures from outside. In order to properly protect academic freedom, we wanted to look at what exactly academic freedom means. Because if you don’t know what it is, you won’t be able to protect or promote it effectively.

Why do you think we should talk about “academic freedoms” instead of “academic freedom”?
“When the first ideas came from the authors, we immediately realized that academic freedom is a very complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Academic freedom means something completely different when it comes to China’s influence than it does when it comes to the social importance of science. For example, Chinese influence is about freedom from External intervention and social relevance revolve around the question of whether and how science can exist and be organized when available resources are scarce.

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Furthermore, there is also disagreement among scholars in the Netherlands about why academic freedom is important and who is responsible for it. Is there a homogeneous whole? Doesn’t the concept have different meanings depending on the context?

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You involve the classical philosophical distinction of Isaiah Berlin between Positive and negative freedom. How can they be distinguished in science?
We rely on this distinction, among others, to try to discover a pattern in different comments. Traditionally, the emphasis in the Netherlands has been on passive academic freedom, freedom from outside interference. This is covered in the chapters on the influence of China and the business community, for example.

But we also notice that more and more attention is being paid to positive academic freedom, the freedom of scholars to do what they want to do and research what they want to research. Positive academic freedom is often about intangible things, such as the working climate and conditions that are important for doing good science, being an independent scientist. This leads you to basic questions about the scientific system: What does Dutch science look like? What kind of science do we really want? These are social questions that concern everyone. Because knowledge is a public good in which we all have an interest.

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Does the world itself have a responsibility as well?
‘certainly. Just like the philosophical concept of freedom, academic freedom is also not unlimited, it comes with duties and responsibilities. As an individual scientist, you should not be guided by money or ideology in your research. This is philosophically very complex: thinkers like Michel Foucault show that you simply cannot think outside your biases. So when it comes to scientists’ freedom and responsibility, we must always keep an eye on the bigger picture, from different funding streams to government science policy.

Megan Vasquez

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