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Show societal worth of research ‘to preserve academic freedom’

Written by: Simon Baker
Published on: 5 May 2021

Media documents a nurse administering the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at a public health centre in Incheon, South Korea, in February 2021

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Rapid vaccine successes could help universities win wide support

Academic freedom may be “better achieved” by universities “earning the trust of society” and demonstrating the impact they can have, Times Higher Education’s Innovation & Impact Summit heard.

Tony Chan, president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, said academic freedom – which, he explained, should not be confused with general freedom of speech – might constantly need to be “earned and justified”.

“The question is can academia have the cake and eat it, too? A university, whether it is public or private, needs societal support, and therefore it has to meet societal expectation and accountability,” he told the event.

“Academic freedom may be better achieved by meeting some societal expectation and earning the trust of society. The more impact academia has for society, the more academic freedom it will enjoy.”

Professor Chan said that this made the pandemic a “great platform for us to argue the case” for universities given the “record time” in which science had responded with initiatives such as vaccines.

He said that at the institution he led previously, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the right to academic freedom had been written into employment contracts.

However, he thought academic freedom was “not an issue” at KAUST because it was independent of government, was funded by endowment and had been set up on the basis of wanting to attract the most enquiring minds from around the world.

Asked how much of an issue academic freedom was for universities when attracting talent, Professor Chan said staff might not rate it as high a priority as the safety and stability of the environment where they lived.

“The faculty’s universe – especially in STEM – is the whole globe. Their peers are global, but their family has to live…wherever the university is. So in a way, the first order of priorities” is the environment they are living in, he said.

Sigbritt Karlsson, president of KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, also emphasised the need for academia to promote the benefits it offered society as a way to protect its freedoms.

“If we just close our doors and sit and think very deep thoughts without taking any notice of what happens in society, then, of course, taxpayers might ask why should I pay for [research] if I don’t see any output?”

Professor Karlsson said academic freedom was not just about the flexibility to frame research “but it is also to foster critical thinking”, although scholars also had a responsibility not to stray outside their area of expertise when commenting publicly.

Colette Fagan, vice-president of research at the University of Manchester, said that while academic freedom of speech had “always been contested in many societies”, the challenges “have become more acute in many parts of the world”.

“In many ways, it’s been heightened because if we think back a few decades, university life was more insular and we’re now more open, more engaged in our societies, more international in our reach,” Professor Fagan said.

“And if we don’t protect academic freedom of speech – to talk about our research, to engage, to contest – it will impoverish our research base and it will impoverish society.”