Truth in research

December 22, 2016

The purpose of research is the search for truth. In a post-truth era, truth is the first to die. Around the globe, the universal freedom to do research is being threatened by populism as well as by terrorism. With governments and individuals in power who deny global warming, we may ask whether it will still be possible in the near future to research climate change. Will researchers be able to do genetics research when religious beliefs suggest that nature is not subject to evolution? Can social and human scientists continue to provide knowledge for the electorate if propagandists pretend to have simple answers in place to solve complex questions?

It is not a coincidence that the freedom of research forms part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Throughout human history, research has been an essential source of well-being and prosperity and a driving force of innovation. Yet there have always been researchers who became henchmen of dictatorial regimes. Research results, if used in irresponsibly, can threaten our lives.

How to deal with this ambivalence? First, the activities of any researcher need to be deeply rooted in the Human Rights framework. The freedom of research should stand back whenever the first right of human freedom and dignity is endangered. Second, researchers have to become “militant” by analogy with the concept of the “militant democracy”, that is, a democracy that is based on a moral fundament and that defends its liberal order consistently. Researchers should fight with their “weapons” of rational ideas and arguments, but also need to touch the broad public at an emotional level, even reaching out to those who no longer seem to be reachable by rational arguments. They need to give special attention to those who feel marginalised. Research institutions need to train researchers from diverse backgrounds to become creative, critical, autonomous, intellectual risk-takers.

Of course, research cannot offer the solution to everything nor create the best of all worlds. But, when truth is under attack, research should become the fifth estate beside the legislative power, the executive, the judiciary and the media. Responsible research can work as a guarantor for freedom and democracy by delivering the evidence base when propagandists promote dogmas and bold claims.

Beate Scholz, higher education consultant, Germany

David Bogle, pro-vice-provost, University College London Doctoral School

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