Why Academic Freedom Is Key: The Marches for Science in Germany

With its many local initiatives, Germany is a great place for Science Marchers. Now that the “March for Science” is about to take place for the third time, the core issues that started the movement in 2017 are still far from solved. This blog aims at giving the international readership an impression of the ideas the March for Science in Germany developed during the last two years. The article is written by Dr. Tanja Gabriele Baudson, giftedness researcher and one of the two founders and coordinators of the movement in Germany.

As some readers may know, many of the conceptions of the modern university originated in 19th-century Germany. In 1810, Wilhelm von Humboldt, a Prussian scholar and politician (and the brother of the famous discoverer Alexander von Humboldt) came up with four core ideas, which can be summarized as follows:

1. All disciplines, sciences, humanities, and the arts, shall live under the same roof, pursuing the quest for knowledge that unites them. This is beneficial for a balanced education that goes way beyond mere workforce readiness. Education, wisdom and virtue should govern society.

2. Research and teaching shall not work in separation but cross-fertilize each other. Unlike in school, university teachers and students meet at eye level and complement each other in the pursuit of knowledge.

3. The quest for knowledge is never-ending and can never be concluded. This requires academics at all levels to fully dedicate themselves to this noble task (and also to communicate where they are in the process).

4. Academic freedom is indispensable for the pursuit of knowledge. (This is granted in the German Basic law, our constitution, since 1949: “Art and science, research and teaching are free.”)

Academic freedom and truth are the values that hold the numerous March-for-Science-related initiatives in Germany together. The discussion following Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “alternative facts” statement revealed why the pursuit of truth (and freedom as its prerequisite) are crucial to democratic societies. As Timothy Snyder put it in On Tyranny, “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so.” (p. 65). When lies are accepted as equivalent to facts and evidence, this erodes the very foundation of democracy. It also erodes people’s trust in the institutions of society that aim for truth—not only the science system, but also the press, the legal system, or the arts (the first ones that totalitarian leaders attack, because they justifiably fear truth). This has practical consequences for science, too: Once opinions count as much as evidence that has been gathered costly and laboriously through the scientific process, there is no more justification to fund the latter.

Figure 1 shows an attempt to structure the core action fields of the March for Science in Germany. What governs the initiative are the two core ideas of science: the pursuit of truth, and freedom as its prerequisite. The diverse activities can then be structured into three “pillars” based on their main content (the “what”s of the movement):

 

Science and Society: Science is part of society. Who are the people behind it? What makes science so fascinating? How can scientists enter a dialogue at eye level with citizens? How can citizens inform science? This is about giving something back to those who pay scientists with their tax money while also receiving relevant ideas for future research.

Science and Education: Education is key to raising responsible citizens who are capable of critical thinking. The scientific process m

odels how complex issues can be addressed and how a constructive dialogue can be achieved in spite of differing opinions: through knowledgeable pursuit of the truth using logic and argument and majority votes. Science in itself is not democratic. Evidence and solid arguments trump loudness. This kind of scientific literacy is something that should be taught from early on so that people do not fall prey to ideologies and lies.

Science and Politics: Political decisions should be made based on the best possible information; and that is, evidence, not mere opinion. It is therefore crucial that this information be both conveyed and understood. Scientists do not hold a mandate; however, they can do their best to inform the process. This pillar also includes the international perspective: When scientists abroad are threatened, this concerns us, too. Science no longer happens in isolation, but is characterized by its very internationality and interdisciplinarity.

What connects the three pillars is science communication (the “how”) as the means through which scientific knowledge enters society, education, and politics. The whole is situated in a context that can be either conducive or detrimental to freedom and the pursuit of truth.

 

Spheres of Activity for the March for Science in Germany

The Bigger Picture: System-immanent Threats to Freedom and Truth

In Germany, the March is perceived as a movement for the freedom of science; and rightly so. Although neither scientists nor institutions are being threatened personally here (not every European country is as lucky—not to speak of the situation worldwide), the threats to freedom and, therefore, to truth are more subtle. To give but a few examples about the current situation: We are witnessing a “replication crisis,” where a large number of what was once considered textbook findings cannot be reproduced (fortunately, and proving the self-corrective power of science, this has opened a huge debate on good scientific practice). “Gold” open access is still not standard in academic publishing, and only about a quarter of scholarly documents are available on the internet. We are seeing retractions, plagiarism, and even fraud. The number of predatory journals publishing “junk science” is on the rise, and this has consequences. The pressure to publish creates a growing number of publications, which is not necessarily conducive to quality; in fact, there is even evidence for a “natural selection of bad science” when publications are key to career advancement. Each publication requires several reviewers working without pay for companies with profit margins that exceed any decent level. Funding systems favor “low-risk research and proposals by older scientists and white men” instead of more risky, but ambitious projects with a high potential impact that is hard to measure in numbers of citations (which we use though we know they are not worth a thing). Permanent contracts and job security are out of reach for more than 90% of the German academics below the professorial level (and even there, not all of them get tenure). The German “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz” (say this loud, please!), which, stated simply, permits fixed-term contracts in academia up to a maximum of “only” 12 years beyond the Masters level degree (6 until the PhD, another 6 years for the “habilitation,” a somewhat bigger PhD thesis as the “classic” qualification for professorial positions and a very German thing; if you needed less than six years for your PhD, the remainder can be added to the six years in Step 2), did not create more permanent contracts, but rather serves as an “up-or-out” screening to get rid of those who “didn’t make it.” In sum, the reality of academia does not quite overlap with the ideals of science—or, as Sanjay Srivastava put it in his now famous syllabus, “everything is f***ed.”

Academics who want to stay in academia therefore find themselves under enormous pressure to produce according to “key performance indicators,” i.e., peer-reviewed publications in high-ranking journals and large grants, in order to stand a chance in the competition for the (way too few) tenured or tenure-track professorships—or to acquire funding for their own research projects (always with the uncertainty whether funding will be continued). This poses hazards for the quality of research. In contrast, science communication, though important as a link between academia and society, is not rewarded.

Researchers under pressure to succeed who compete against each other are not free to pursue the truth together; this is precisely the original reason why tenure was established in the first place. And the question is whether increasing external control through KPIs, audits, evaluations, and other measures of accountability is really the best way to treat intelligent and highly qualified individuals. In my eyes, the growing tendency to organize universities according to economic principles is based on a wrong conception of human beings. Economy assumes that individuals that have to be incentivized; yet research shows that academics show high intrinsic motivation and enjoy their work—in spite of, not because of their working conditions—whereas external rewards may even destroy intrinsic motivation, especially in individuals with a high need for autonomy.

The ultimate question is: what effects will this have for academia as a whole? Who are the people that are attracted to the current incentive structures? Do managerial qualities make one a better scientist? And, crucially: Do the current conditions in academia support the noblest aim of science—the pursuit of truth—through people that are capable to deal responsibly with the exceptional freedom they are granted? I think these are important questions we need to address when debating the freedom of science.

Appendix: Brief Mission Statement of the March for Science in Germany

(http://marchforscience.de)

1. Our understanding of science

Science and academia are two different things. The former represents values and ideals; the latter, reality. Science is not in possession of truth; yet it strives for it. Thereby, errors are inevitable. However, these errors are being corrected in the process of discovery. Scientific labor underlies strict rules that support replicable results, which are superior to mere opinion.

2. Why science is important

The problems society is facing are getting more and more complex. To solve them reliably, we need a scientific approach and cross-border collaboration. The usefulness of science for humankind becomes apparent in medical and technological progress. Informed citizens are a prerequisite for democracy. Scientists benefit from society and thus carry a special responsibility.

3. Objectives of the “March for Science” Germany

We want free and open science. This is a prerequisite both for science’s quest for truth and for trustworthy research. Populist and totalitarian tendencies, economic influence, misuse of scientific methods and structures of academia creating false incentives interfere with science. Researchers must carry the idea of science into society and foster citizens’ understanding of and the involvement with science, especially that of the younger generation.