Funders and reviewers pose a threat to freedom

May 21, 1999

Science cannot be censored like novels or plays. But Index on Censorship's contributors (pages 22-23) articulate widespread concern about the power of two groups, funders and peer reviewers. They dictate the direction of science by deciding whose work is worthy of funding and publication.

Two issues arise. One is funders' tendency to direct research. Big funders are sophisticated organisations that shape the research landscape. In biotechnology their money is in every major department. Anyone they are not funding risks being too poor and unprestigious to be a countervailing voice. Universities are the places to which the public looks for impartial advice on tricky issues. It is in the interests of both funders and university managers to make sure this remains true. Suspicions are growing (page 9) that both are inclined to regard academic freedom as an expensive inconvenience.

Such freedom is important in a second area: where researchers' work does not fit with accepted wisdom. When the disagreement is over something large, such as the connection between HIV and Aids (page 23 and Letters, page 19), the responsibility on both sides is immense. Doubters of the HIV-Aids link have lost the argument on merit, and this week the Royal Society has condemned Arpad Pusztai's work on genetically modified food. But unfashionable views can turn out to be right. Peer review is a conservative force, likely to reject iconoclasts. Join in our discussion of these issues. See THES/Nexus debates at www.thesis.co.uk.

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