Peter-Paul Verbeek began his lecture at the KNAW Academy Day on Tuesday afternoon by stating that discussions on academic freedom always used to be about ‘far-off foreign countries where academics are oppressed’. But he went on to point out that ‘this picture has changed a lot in recent years’.

In 2021, Verbeek chaired a KNAW committee which took a detailed look at academic freedom. In his Academy Lecture, the philosopher and rector magnificus of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) highlighted a series of new challenges. Given the widespread discussions about ‘wokeness’, knowledge security and climate activism, we suddenly have every reason to rethink academic freedom and its meaning here in the Netherlands too.

Climate activism

In recent months, many Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences have been targeted by action groups who staged sit-in protests to demand that the institutions cut all ties with the fossil industry, particularly Shell. Verbeek argues that universities face a difficult choice: should they restrict academic freedom for ethical reasons, or is it in fact unethicalto restrict the academic freedom of scientists who want to collaborate on sustainable energy with the fossil sector?

The point at the heart of Verbeek’s lecture is that academic freedom presupposes the courage to doubt. “Demonstrations are all part of driving those doubts and this makes them a great asset to universities. But demonstrations themselves also need to respect the room for doubt: when demonstrating becomes making demands of a university without any opportunity for discussion, academic freedom loses out.”


Academic freedom therefore requires the academic not to impose their own sense of what is morally or scientifically right on others but to be willing to engage in debate at all times. It is up to the university to provide space for academics to doubt and to establish ethics committees to ensure the free exchange of knowledge.

Verbeek insisted that the same applies to those who fiercely engage in the debate about ‘wokeness’: “For some, a movement for ‘equality and justice’, for others, ‘an exaggerated focus on gender and ethnicity’. Holding on to unshakeable truths does not help.”

Knowledge security

The third challenge Verbeek focused on is the growing concern about knowledge security, which means scientists no longer feel free to work with anyone they want to.

KNAW president and biophysicist Marileen Dogterom shared this concern in her annual address. She argues that the need to protect knowledge is at odds with the ideals of open science, which are all about making scientific knowledge accessible to everyone.

She welcomes government initiatives such as the knowledge security helpdesk that support scientists in making the right trade-offs when engaging in international cooperation. But she is less positive about the prospect of screenings to assess collaboration with scientists outside the EU for a very wide range of research areas. “Especially when the aim seems to be to use this to protect not only national security but also our economic interests.”

Dogterom is not an advocate of the latter. “We can only remain at the forefront of science – and therefore technology – if we share knowledge and encourage academic exchanges, including with countries outside the EU. This has bolstered the power of Dutch science and innovation in the past and there is no reason to believe that it will not do so in future too.”

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