Dark clouds gathering over scientific freedom

This statement has been issued by The Conference of Rectors, in which all Dutch universities are represented.

Following decades of increasingly free contacts between scientists across the world and a long drop in tension since World War II and especially the fall of the Berlin Wall, this freedom now faces ever growing restrictions.

The first signs had been around for some time. But since 2008 in particular, when the financial crisis impressed the fragility of our economic order on the world, and 2010, when the Arab Spring degenerated into a large-scale conflagration, it has become increasingly clear that the world is moving towards a state of opposites. Europe’s inability to respond quickly and adequately to the flow of refugees, coupled with mounting tension between East and West, have led to serious concerns among parts of the population, strengthened populist parties and caused people to focus increasingly on their own countries.

All of this affects scientific freedom: the writing is on the wall for all to read. In Iran, a Professor of disaster medicine of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel was recently sentenced to death for alleged collaboration with scientists from hostile states. In Russia, science for a long time now has had to follow Putin on pain of sanctions. In a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, including Hungary and Poland, education and science are under growing pressure. Grave restrictions on Turkish scientists’ freedom of movement and action came as a considerable blow. This situation worsened when the government, having declared a state of emergency, closed down entire universities and dismissed professors and members of staff. It is clear by now that this country, too, imposes serious restrictions on scientific freedom. In recent weeks, the world was jolted by developments in the United States, which has always been a bastion of academic debate, with freedom and openness being essential ingredients of its society.

Scientific freedom is being eroded in two ways. Its explicit form, of which Turkey and Iran are examples, is easiest to recognise: the death penalty, closure of universities, the dismissal of Deans and scientists accused of making common cause with ‘the opposition’ or branded ‘enemies of the state’. This is characteristic of totalitarian governments. An explicit measure that at first sight seems less serious is the recent travel ban imposed by the Trump administration, discriminating against people (including scientists) on the basis of their nationality and religion. This and similar measures also affect students who want an education elsewhere in order to get to know different scientific cultures and, thus enriched, to contribute to the world’s future.

More implicit erosions, harder to recognise but at least as dangerous, involve discrediting science, often through social media. This is not a new phenomenon: denial of the facts by climate sceptics is a well-known example, as is the subversion or manipulation of scientific research by the tobacco industry. We recently saw the American government engage in this as well through Twitter statements about the climate, vaccinations and the environment. President Trump’s tweeted threat to the University of California, Berkeley to cut its funding after a meeting at the university with a speaker from the ‘Trump camp’ had to be cancelled last week for security reasons, is another cause for growing concern.

Scientists and science in the countries concerned will be the first to be affected by these developments, but they can affect all of us. Scientific freedom is essential to the world for the preservation of prosperity and for solving the enormous challenges the world faces. All these developments hamper open communication and the exchange of ideas and, consequently, scientific freedom, limiting its yields to society.

We are happy to see opposition to this being marshalled: around the world, scientists are coming to the aid of their colleagues. As rectors of the Dutch universities we, too, will push back. We will do so by speaking out, but also through such actions as supporting organisations such as the Foundation for Refugee Students UAF and Scholars at Risk. We will also do our utmost to defend our institutions against any restrictions on the freedom of science and debate. But a lot more is needed. We are calling on the Dutch government, the governments of the EU member states, the European Commission, the European Parliament and governments worldwide to vigorously oppose restrictions on scientific freedom. Let us turn the tide while we still can: history teaches us that too often, we looked away from unwelcome developments or were lulled into inaction for too long.

The Conference of Rectors, in which all Dutch universities are represented: Prof. Bert van der Zwaan (chair), Prof. Emile Aarts, Prof. Frank Baaijens, Prof. Han van Krieken, Prof. Gerty Lensvelt, Prof. Rianne Letschert, Prof. Karel Luyben, Prof. Karen Maex, Prof Arthur Mol, Prof. Anja Oskamp, Prof. Thom Palstra, Prof. Huibert Pols, Prof. Elmer Sterken, Prof. Carel Stolker, Prof. Vinod Subramaniam.

Bertyl Lankhaar
Spokesperson Executive Board