The Future of Academic Freedom

23 May 2019

Article 5 of Germany’s Constitution protects the freedom of “the arts and sciences, research and teaching”, thus guaranteeing freedom of expression and enquiry. We asked LMU faculty why it was included and what challenges it now faces.

How significant is the constitutional guarantee of academic freedom?

“The makers of the Constitution were all too well aware of what had happened to science and scholarship under the Nazi regime – in particular, the ease with which universities had surrendered their autonomy and the eagerness with which so many of their faculty members had served the needs of the regime. For the men and women who drafted the document, freedom of the arts and sciences was a vital precondition for the creation of a pluralist and democratic society. The Constitution grants researchers and teachers protection from political interference and guarantees the autonomy and independence of university governance. Nevertheless, research has always had to contend with divergent interests that present a potential threat to freedom of enquiry. It is well to be wary not only of direct interventions by politicians, but also of unreasonable demands on the part of economic and commercial interests. This underlines the crucial importance of maintaining stable channels of communication, providing adequate levels of public funding and designing clearly defined career structures in higher education.”

Prof. Dr. Andreas Wirsching, Chair of Contemporary History at LMU and Director of the Institute for Contemporary History Munich - Berlin

What role does the communication of research data play in academic freedom?

“Like much else in the text of the Constitution, the guarantee of academic freedom can be understood as a reaction to National Socialism. In the Third Reich, books were burnt and scholars were dismissed, persecuted and murdered. Jewish academics were specifically targeted and forced into exile. Their positions were then filled by members of the Nazi Party. As a consequence of these measures, the German academic system and its associated research enterprise lost the pre-eminent reputation they had previously enjoyed.

Thanks to the constitutional guarantee of the autonomy of enquiry, German scholarship has been able to develop dynamically over the past 70 years, and it once again plays a leading role on the international stage. In spite of this, securing the continued protection of academic freedom remains a vital and an urgent task. In addition to attacks from State agencies and politicians – like those underway in Hungary, for example – there is rising concern that private commercial entities are effectively eroding the scope of the concept. For instance, in certain fields – artificial intelligence being perhaps the most prominent example – the most significant results are now being obtained not in university labs, but in the research departments of large companies that may have little interest in rapid publication of the data. Moreover, scientific publishing is increasingly dominated by a few powerful and profit-oriented firms. What impact do such developments have on academic freedom? The principle is of fundamental importance, and it is well worth defending!”

Prof. Dr. Jan Lipfert, Faculty of Physics, LMU

What impact has international collaboration on concepts of academic freedom? – Lessons from the history of economics

“Without the free flow of ideas, the pace of scientific advance is dramatically reduced. In a recent article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, my co-authors and I took a closer look at the impact of the collapse of international cooperation in the wake of World War I on scientific progress and technological innovation.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the world was abruptly divided into two competing blocs – the Allies and the Central Powers. The fact that scientists actively participated in the development of chemical weapons, and the extremely nationalistic attitudes which many of them adopted in support of their own country, resulted in strong antipathies between scientists on opposite sides of the divide. Immediately after the war ended, Allied scientists successfully campaigned for a boycott against their former colleagues, which cut the latter off from participation in scientific exchanges with their peers in much of the rest of the world until the mid-1920s. This breakdown in international cooperation led to a marked reduction in the number of scientific publications and slowed the pace of scientific progress, especially in fields that were particularly dependent on large-scale international collaborations.”

Prof. Fabian Waldinger, PhD, Faculty of Economics

What is the status of academic freedom in Eastern Europe? Foto: Historisches Kolleg/Stefan Obermeier

“The enforced departure of the Central European University (CEU) from Budapest in response to the actions of Victor Orbán’s government has been the most flagrant political attack on academic freedom in the region. His government’s policy in relation to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences is also highly disturbing. In Hungary we are witnessing an attempt by a populist government to bring ever larger sections of society under its control, and its efforts to establish domination over science and scholarship play a prominent role in this endeavor.

Developments in Poland also give cause for concern, but the governing party PiS is taking a different course: It is using public funds to create rival institutions that are specifically intended to propagate alternatives to the evidence-based views of the established research institutions and universities in Poland. One example of this is the extension of the huge Institute of National Remembrance, which engages in research on the history of the 20th century – in accordance with the paradigms favored by the present government. Furthermore, the government’s policies in relation to museums devoted to the history of the 20th century clearly reveal its intention to promulgate its own particular interpretation of that history, and it is willing to employ forceful measures against all institutions that do not toe the Kaczyński party’s line.

The Czech Republic provides a counter-example to both Hungary and Poland. Here, academic freedom in all areas is unrestricted. Even an institution that was explicitly set up for the politically inspired purpose of investigating the history of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century has since developed into an establishment with a well-founded scholarly agenda. So the picture in Eastern and Central Europe is heterogeneous rather than unrelievedly negative.”

Prof. Dr. Martin Schulze Wessel, Chair of Eastern and Southeastern European History.

Molecular tools like the gene-editing complex CRISPR/Cas9 greatly facilitate the alteration of genomes – where do the boundaries of academic freedom lie?

“Academic freedom ends where we as a society want it to end. However, before such a major decision is taken, there must be broad, open-ended and open-minded public discussion of the issues involved. These discussions have to take place at national, European and global levels, and must reflect the views of the whole spectrum of interest groups. As research scientists, we must make our contribution to this discussion by exploring not only the risks, but also the incredible potential of these new technologies. This will itself require extensive and unhindered basic research, which will in turn provide an informed and reliable basis for discussions and decisions.

In order to have sufficient time for our investigations, we need an international moratorium on manipulations of the human germline by means of CRISPR/Cas9, until such time as the broadest possible consensus on the responsible use of the these new technologies has been reached”.

Prof. Dr. Julian Stingele, Gene Center, LMU