European sectors told to create helplines for threatened scholars

Plea comes as European Parliament pledges new focus on academic freedom

November 29, 2022
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The Dutch science minister has said other governments should set up national help desks for academics facing harassment, copying a recently launched service in the Netherlands.

Robbert Dijkgraaf made the suggestion at the launch of a European Parliament forum on academic freedom, which is developing an annual monitoring mechanism to highlight violations in the European Union.

“I would like to encourage other European governments to development similar platforms, showing a united front,” said Professor Dijkgraaf, who was until his appointment director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

The Dutch SafeScience platform is a website and 24-hour helpline for academics to get support from their institution within one working day if they are threatened, intimidated or abused because of their teaching, research or outreach activities.

“The trend of threatening is an international phenomenon. We also need to consider how to deal with this at a European level,” he said.

The call for copycat services was echoed by the MEP Christian Ehler, a member of the European Parliament’s research committee and chair of its cross-committee Science and Technology Options Assessment Panel (STOA), which is hosting the academic freedom monitor.

“There should be a permanent way, in all member states, so that academics have a platform where they can appeal and there’s immediate reaction, be it individual protection [or] advice,” he said, referring to Professor Dijkgraaf’s suggestion.

He said MEPs would push for more EU action against member countries that trample on academic freedom, comparing it to a previous campaign on the rule of law. “This parliament is determined that with the same relentless effort we have done for the rule of law, we are going to go for the protection of academic freedom,” he said.

“We know that academic freedom is under threat,” said the parliament’s president, Roberta Metsola, speaking at the event. “Academic oppression is nothing new, we know about it from our history books. What has evolved are the methods by which academic freedom and institutional autonomy are being curtailed in a globalised, digital world.”

While the eviction of Central European University from Budapest by the Hungarian government remains the cardinal violation of academic freedom for many EU policymakers, Ms Metsola chose the Chinese funding of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s human rights centre as her cautionary tale.

STOA commissioned Hungarian researchers to sketch out the qualities its monitoring mechanism should have. Gergely Kovats from Corvinus University of Budapest said monitoring reports should pull in information from existing exercises, such as those by the non-governmental organisations Scholars at Risk and Human Rights Watch, and by the umbrella body the European University Association.

The parliament’s monitor should report annually and be able to accommodate ad hoc studies, follow consistent guidelines to allow comparisons between countries, and be “more or less independent of the major sources of academic freedom infringement”, he said.

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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