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Academics don't let themselves be free

If academics really want freedom, they should try talking to the public more, writes scholar.

Last Modified: 18 Apr 2013 09:26
Alice Bell

Dr Alice Bell is an academic and writer interested in science and technology when they become part of public policy, the media and popular culture. She is a research fellow at the University of Sussex, a co-editor for New Left Project and science blogger for the Guardian.
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"Many academics could also do a lot more to liberate their knowledge from the confines of ivory towers, rather than keep it for themselves," writes author [AP]

Ideas of academic freedom have a long and noble history. They are also, all too often, a load of old rubbish. The worst kind of rubbish too, because it obscures more systematic problems at play. 

Academics do not let themselves be free. The fields we organise ourselves into are called "disciplines" for a reason. Like anyone else, academics live in a network of constraints and compromises. Unusually, however, academics are often self-policed. Academics routinely play to external vested interests and impose ones of their own: they are just selective about which ones they choose to get angry about. Peer review, pay walls, stakeholders, snobbishness, ethics and economics. It all constrains research - for good and bad - and it is all business as usual. Many academics could also do a lot more to liberate their knowledge from the confines of ivory towers, rather than keep it for themselves.

I do not want to trivialise the many academics who have been threatened into keeping quiet. Galileo is an overused cliché (cough) but that does not mean we should forget him, or think it is an issue that has been safely consigned to history. We need to stay cognizant to soft pressures put upon researchers to pursue particular lines of enquiry too; it is not always violent.

I also want to stress that I see a point in talking about a special flavour of freedom for academics. They do not deserve more freedom than anyone else but, like journalists, they are often at their most useful when they ask difficult questions so, like journalists, we need to find systems which productively allow them to do this (for example, the idea of tenure). 

Academic research

But that does not mean academic research should - or can, or does - exist without any constraints. Ethics, limited resources, socially constructed ideas of what is "interesting", they all help networks of peer reviewers make decisions about what research to fund and what gets published. 

Peer review, if you are not familiar with it, comes in several different forms, but simply means the reviewing of projects by people from roughly the same field. It means that specialists from one silo of expertise judge other specialists from the same subject. In many ways is a good thing. I mean, would you like to try to judge the quality of high-energy physics research? (Or if you are a high-energy physicist, would you like to judge some classical history? Norse linguistics? Sociology of childhood? Polar bear genetics?)

But it can make research sometimes pathologically insular. It is all terribly self-selecting. Those who do not conform are expunged, laughed away or simply leave in frustrated boredom. As sociologist Thomas Gieryn argues in his book on the Cultural Boundaries of Science, our very idea of what is or is not science is largely a "winner's map", built to suit the victors. 

The surprising thing about academics is not that they have their price, but how low that price is.

Yes Minister, a BBC sitcom

A 2011 study on "forbidden knowledge" - areas which researchers felt were no-go subjects of enquiry - found more than a third of the academics they researched reported they or one of their colleagues had chosen not to pursue/ publish research because they knew it contravened accepted dogmas of their discipline in some way. That was normal. But if it came from outside - the media, activists or politicians - that would contravene free enquiry.

Academia is a highly hierarchical business, built around subservience to those above us. There is a great bit in Homo Academicus, Bourdieu's study of the complex exchanges of symbolic capitals at play in universities, where he refers to the way younger scholars are all too happy to help build the social status of those above them, because they, through reflected glory, may capture some such elevated status for themselves, at least in comparison to non-scholars. The highly competitive nature of the post-doc market created by a surfeit of PhDs and dropping research budgets only exacerbates the problem, as does the prevailing view that those who leave are not up to the job (as opposed to simply finding it all a bit silly/ corrupt/ dull). 

Talk to the public

The various networks of influence put upon researchers should be discussed more, if only because many academics do not realise their energies being captured, these processes are often so gradual. It is perhaps scary how easily academics' views over what is "interesting" can be influenced. To quote Yes Minister, an old BBC sitcom on the civil service: "The surprising thing about academics is not that they have their price, but how low that price is." This is not true of most academics, but enough to be keep an eye on. 

Environmental activists are right to at least be worried about "frackademy" (research funded by the shale gas industry), even though we must also expect any such critique to be well founded. It has become routine for academics to work to whatever theme the funding calls mention. If you do not, you do not get funding, and you end up working elsewhere. Such directed calls can be a good thing, poking researchers into considering socially important issues. The question is who gets to control this poking; friends of politicians or public at large? We are also increasingly asked to work with external groups. 

Again, this is often good, helping us draw in expertise from outside the academy and learn more about how best to put it to use. But there is a large question mark over which external groups get to work with publicly funded academics. When we are told it will be easier to access public funds if you can match them with private, we are in danger of only answering the research questions that the rich can pay for, and building an academy devoted simply to replicating the status quo, not challenging it. 

Fellow academics, if you really want to stand up for your special forms of freedoms you need to recognise the role you already play in the systems that curtail them and reflect deeply upon which of these constraints you do and do not approve of, and why. Stand up for yourself, against your boss as well as policymakers or the media. And trying talking to the public, you might even find they are an ally in your liberation. 

Dr Alice Bell is an academic and writer interested in science and technology when they become part of public policy, the media and popular culture. She is a research fellow at the University of Sussex, a co-editor for New Left Project and science blogger for the Guardian. 

Follow her on Twitter: @alicebell

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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