Academic Freedom Under Threat: The Spectre Haunting Science

Central and Eastern European countries have in recent years made large strides towards establishing themselves as serious players on the scientific research landscape. Indeed, several of these countries, including Poland, Russia and Turkey were termed “rising stars” by the journal Nature only last year. However, academia in these countries has also been in the headlines for more dispiriting reasons in recent months: from Budapest to the Bosporus, scientific freedom in the region is under threat. The focal point is the pressure being exerted by the government of Hungary on Central European University (CEU), but this is only one instance of a more general wave of harassment and oppression of scientists and scientific institutions. The case has become a rallying point for concerned citizens who are worried that the freedom of science is being jeopardised.

 

The threatened closure of the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary has become a cause célèbre for academic freedom in Europe and beyond. Photo: By Gphgrd01 (The stock of CEU) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The threatened closure of the Central European University in Budapest has become a cause célèbre for academic freedom in Europe and beyond. Photo: By Gphgrd01 (The stock of CEU) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Nationalism vs. Science: When Academia is Against the National Interest

If there are common elements uniting all of the current developments then it is probably these: governments are wary of perceived threats from “foreign agents” and have come to believe that their own scientists and scientific institutions are acting against the national interest. How has it come to this?

CEU’s existence is threatened by a new law that requires universities in Hungary with foreign accreditation to also operate as universities in their home countries. CEU is also accredited in the US, but has no campus there. Hence, under the new law the university would have to cease operating in Hungary. However, this is not the entire story. CEU was founded by the Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros in 1991 in Budapest with the aim of using American, European and international traditions as a basis for promoting a more open and transparent society. It appears that it is precisely this openness that has set it on a collision course with the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. His professed aim is that Hungary should become an “illiberal democracy”, and he rejects the idea that his country must have at its core liberal democratic values. The government’s new law has been seen as the latest chapter in the conflict for supremacy between two opposing ideologies: internationalism and cosmopolitanism versus the supremacy of individual nation-states. 

 

Thousands have Hungarians have taken to the streets to protest against a new law threatening the existence of Central European University in Budapest. Photo: By Syp (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Thousands have taken to the streets to protest against a new law threatening the existence of Central European University in Budapest. Photo: By Syp (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

What of the other countries in the region? Poland has garnered particular praise of late for its increasing competitiveness in the world of research. However, some scientists now also perceive a cold wind blowing through the country’s academic life and worry that the current government is turning its back on science and on proven scientific facts. For instance, the government has proposed felling huge amounts of trees in one of oldest forests in Europe to combat an outbreak of beetles; environmentalists argue that the destruction of so many trees is unnecessary and will disturb the forest’s ecosystem. Meanwhile, education reforms proposed by the ruling Law and Justice party that aim to place more emphasis on history and traditional values will result in a reduction in the amount of science that is taught to Polish school children. A worrying backdrop to these developments is the ongoing public investigation into the Polish-American historian Jan Tomasz Gross. Last year, Gross was questioned by a Polish prosecutor over controversial claims regarding Polish violence against Jews during the Second World War. Gross’ claims are alleged to publicly insult the nation of Poland and he has been threatened with being stripped of a state honour.     

In Russia, as in Hungary, concerns are currently focused on the threatened closure of an institution of higher education – the European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP). The EUSP is the country’s highest ranking university in terms of research productivity, but is now battling to save its licence. The university’s problems ostensibly stem from its failure to adhere to a raft of formal rules. One, in particular, is proving to be a particular sticking point: in the eyes of Rosobrnadzor, the federal institution that oversees education and science in the Russian Federation, the percentage of faculty engaged in practical work is too small. However, the EUSP and its many supporters both within Russia as well as internationally are convinced that something more sinister is behind the legal disputes. They believe that the University’s gender studies programme may be what is drawing the attention of the authorities. According to the university, the inspections which revealed the alleged infarctions of Russian law were instigated by complaints made by a deputy of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg who strongly objects to gender studies courses offered by the EUSP. The case continues and a court decision is expected on 16 May.     

The greatest levels of oppression, however, are undoubtedly being experienced by academics in Turkey. The state of emergency that was declared hot on the heels of the attempted coup last July has plunged the country’s academic institutions into a storm which does not show any signs of abating. Thousands of academic staff suspected to be linked to the coup have been dismissed and, only since the turn of this year, the Academic Freedom Monitor has verified 16 separate cases where academic freedom has been curtailed, ranging from loss of positions to prosecution, imprisonment and violence. In one such incident alone, a decree dating from 7 February ordered the dismissal of some 330 academic personnel suspected of being involved in the coup attempt in July last year. Now that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, albeit with a slim majority, won approval for a raft of reforms that seek to concentrate power in his office, it appears unlikely that the situation will improve in the foreseeable future.

 

Over 600 Reasons to be Optimistic

The idea for a “March for Science” initially sprang up from concerns regarding US President Donald Trump’s attitude to scientific evidence and the measures proposed by him and his administration. However, the movement’s aim of safeguarding the “vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies and governments” has clearly struck a chord with people the world over: more than 600 different demonstrations took place worldwide on 22 April 2017, many of them in Europe. In Germany alone 19 marches were organised.

 

Maria Kronfeldner, Professor at CEU, spoke about the threats that CEU is facing at the March for Science in Munich, Germany, on 22 April 2017. Photo: LNLM

Maria Kronfeldner, Professor at CEU, spoke about the threats that CEU is facing at the March for Science in Munich, Germany, on 22 April 2017. Photo: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Why did marches take place in countries with no apparent threats to academic freedom? Claus Martin, co-organiser of the German marches, explained it in these terms in an interview shortly before the march: “Precisely because in our country the freedom of expression and scientific freedom are not directly threatened, we can and must show solidarity with countries where scientists are being put under pressure: in the US, but especially also in Turkey, Hungary and other countries”.   

The existential danger faced by CEU in Hungary has animated a series of massive demonstrations. About 70,000 people took part in demonstrations in Budapest on 9 April 2017, and prominent academics and academic institutions have been lining up to offer their support to the CEU and to criticise the government’s stance. Whether the government will ultimately yield in the face of these protests and international pressure remains unclear, but it is obvious that science is now in need of supporters and champions more than ever before. The March must continue. 

Neysan Donnelly

About Neysan Donnelly

Neysan Donnelly is a science writer and editor based in southern Germany. He completed his doctoral research at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry outside Munich.

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