The Lower House debated science policy this week with Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven of Education and Science. The SP, GroenLinks, PVV and VVD, among others, have submitted motions to safeguard freedom of expression and academic freedom.
Harm Beertema of the PVV called for a hotline and an ombudsperson where students and employees who feel constrained in their right to academic freedom and the exercise of free speech can turn.
Judith Tielen of the VVD found that motion ‘excessive’ and pointed out to her colleague from the PVV that a body already exists to protect scientific integrity, the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (Landelijk Orgaan Wetenschappelijke Integriteit, LOWI). But she believes, as does Beertema, that students, teachers and scholars should always feel free to express their opinion.
“There is enough attention to freedom of opinion.”
Together with Zhini Özdil (GroenLinks) and Harry van der Molen of the CDA, Tielen therefore asked the minister in a motion “to call on universities and knowledge institutes to focus attention on prevention and reduction of self-censorship and the restriction of diversity of perspectives in science.”
Van Engelshoven found it difficult to disagree with her. “We all subscribe to the importance of academic freedom,” said the minister. But she still advised against the motion due to Tielen’s wording. “You talk about ‘reduction of self-censorship’. If I gave a favourable opinion, I would concur that there is an issue of self-censorship, and I don’t share that view,” said the minister. She said it once again: “There is enough attention to freedom of opinion.”
SP House Member Frank Futselaar sees academic freedom threatened from a different angle; he is especially concerned about the influence of business on science. Futselaar referred to several recent publications of news site Follow the Money that cast doubt on the independence and integrity of the Rotterdam School of Management.
To prevent researchers steering the outcome of their research to satisfy their commercial sponsors, the SP member wants scholars and companies to have a statement signed from now on that would guarantee scientific independence.
Minister van Engelshoven sees no solution in that. “All scholars are already bound to a code of conduct,” she said. She believes such an extra statement only provides extra administrative red tape. She does want to enter into the publications of Follow the Money in a letter to the Lower House soon.
Free and unfettered
She did find a motion from GroenLinks House Member Zihni Özdil on the so-called ‘embedding guarantee’ reasonable. The statement that researchers soon need from their university or research institute to be able to submit a grant application to science funding agency NWO may not stand in the way of the freedom and independence of researchers with respect to their institution, the minister also believes.