On November 15th 2016 all eight major political parties in Norway agreed to sign a declaration to support academic freedom and encourage academics to participate in public debate. The occasion was the annual Research Policy Summit and the initiative came from its organizers, the Norwegian Association of Researchers (NAR). What can academics expect from the signing of a non-legal, non-binding pledge?
First, let’s consider the backdrop: Around the world, a sheer disrespect for scientific knowledge seems to be on the rise, even incited by leaders of nations where science and the freedom to pursue knowledge has been known to be held in high esteem (yes, you know who, and where). The notion of “post-factual society” is making headlines.
Researchers who are communicating results or publicly debate controversial or divisive topics, risk the threat of losing their jobs, having their funding cut off or being restrained in more subtle ways. Academic freedom is under pressure, as Scholars at Risk and others are reporting.
To be fair, researchers in Norway are not subject to the worst forms of threats to their intellectual and academic freedom. Norwegian academics are mostly still safe to pursue research according to their own interests and free from direct political influence. Academic and artistic freedom is explicitly protected under the Act relating to universities and university colleges (Section 1-5). However, some recent controversies have made clear that academic freedom can be put under political pressure despite the strong legal protection. The cases were typically related to frictions between commercial and research interests or specifically contested issues.
Last year, a Minister was accused of instructing researchers at a national, state-financed institute for marine research. One of his colleagues was said to be cherry-picking and incorrectly reporting research findings to support her immigration policies. Other parliamentarians commissioned a new report on wolves and wildlife migration, thus ignoring the existing reports from an already frustrated Scandinavian research community.
In light of cases such as these, and prompted by feedback received from union members, NAR was encouraged to consider taking action to ensure academic freedom. This is how the idea of a Pledge to Researchers arose.
As mentioned, all the major political parties – from left, centre and right ¬– signed the pledge in November. What did they sign up for? By signing the pledge, the representatives of the eight political parties agree with the importance of “a solid knowledge base and an open-minded approach to research”. Furthermore, and explicitly addressing the concerns raised in relation to the controversies, the politicians “urge researchers to participate in the public exchange of views and make their research available” and crucially – “even when this research may appear to contradict the party’s official position”.
Not only do the parties commit to academic freedom in general, but they also pledge to quote research properly and not conceal research results that are inconsistent with political views.
Judging from the response from NAR’s members, the pledge was well received in the research community. They see it as a welcome acknowledgment of the importance of academic freedom in a time of mounting pressures on researchers.
Does the pledge change anything? Naturally, this kind of document does not secure academic freedom in and of itself. It needs to be seen as a strong symbolic statement on the commitment to freedom and autonomy of academics and academic institutions. Safeguarding academic freedom requires a constant effort on the part of stakeholders such as NAR. With the Pledge to Researchers we have an additional instrument and a proof of Norwegian political parties’ commitment. 2017 is election year in Norway, so the pledge can come in handy to keep politicians in check.
Please read the English language version of the full terms of the pledge to researchers. Perhaps such a document would be helpful in your country as well, to support academic freedom and remind politicians of their duty to make use of research, and to do so with respect for the freedom and autonomy of researchers.