Uproar as MPs claim university research is ‘politicised’

The overwhelming endorsement by Danish MPs of a parliamentary motion calling on universities to avoid “excessive activism in certain research environments” has been criticised in an open letter signed by thousands of academics.

On 1 June the Danish parliament passed a motion saying parliament expects university leaders to take steps to ensure that self-regulation of scientific practices is functioning properly.

It said: “This means that there should be no standardisation of research in order to produce politics disguised as science and that it is not possible to systematically avoid legitimate academic critique.”

The motion also said that universities are decisive social institutions that create a framework for critical thinking, that the scientific community should through free and critical debate reach consensus on ideas, and that parliament’s attitude to research results should not have a decisive influence on what should be researched or how.

The motion states that its call to universities to take steps to ensure self-regulation is functioning properly is necessary to safeguard diversity and was adopted by a majority of 72 votes to 24, with backing from the social democratic party, the liberal party and the conservative party.

However, the decision led to a storm in the media and across social media with warnings that Denmark now is approaching “countries we do not like to compare ourselves with”.

An open letter criticising the MPs’ motion, published by Politiken on 2 June, has since been signed by more than 3,300 academics.

The letter said the motion was “motivated by and risks resulting in the exact opposite” of the claimed motive of safeguarding diversity.

The letter said that this position represents the “culmination of an intensive lobbying process and political campaign against targeted research environments by a number of politicians and public figures across the political spectrum”.

“This campaign has specifically targeted critical research and teaching, especially in race, gender, migration and post-colonial studies, areas subjected to attacks,” the letter said.

“In recent years, politicians have also lashed out against academics working on a much wider range of issues such as climate, biodiversity, immigration, agriculture and inequality, and spanning the entire range of the humanities and the social, technical and natural sciences.”

The letter said similar attacks on academic freedom have taken place in several other European countries over the past year.

In a ranking of freedom of research within the European Union, Denmark is already near the bottom (24th out of 28 EU countries in 2017).

“Academic freedom is under increasing attack. In the political campaigns against specific research communities, individual researchers have been exposed and shamed in public debates. In some cases, they have been attacked personally by e-mail, phone or social media,” the letter said.

‘Highly troubling’

“These developments are highly troubling. The parliamentary position can be used to advance further attacks and limitations of academic freedom.

“This could result in more researchers, particularly those in precarious positions, withdrawing from public debate, effectively leading to self-censorship. Researchers might be deterred from doing research in fields that are under significant political scrutiny. This is detrimental both to democracy and to the advancement of knowledge.”

Akademikerne, the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations, in a 7 June press release state that universities do not see the problem the motion seeks to address because their work for securing high scientific quality “stems exactly from an open debate, a critical view of each other’s methods and results through peer reviews before publication”.

The confederation said: “If critique and an evaluation of scientists and their work suddenly is going to be dependent on what politicians may like or not like, then we lose scientific freedom and the safety-net for scientists to debate and present their results.”

Lars Qvistgaard, chair of Akademikerne, said Danish research is highly regarded internationally and this reputation has been built exactly on the freedom to follow important problems, create new knowledge and change society through new technology and knowledge.

“It is destructive if we now will see the leaders at the universities forced to control research milieus to hunt a fata morgana [mirage] that only the politicians see,” he said.

He added that Minister of Higher Education and Science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, who voted for the motion, had thereby expressed a general distrust towards research and the universities for which she herself is responsible.

The “science minister” has by that sown the seeds of doubt on some of the basic elements in the scientific DNA in Danish context, he said, and Akademikerne will therefore give full support for the many researchers that have signed the open letter protesting to the minister.

Researchers might withdraw

Professor Anders Bjarklev, chair of Universities Denmark, said the parliamentary motion builds on a long list of strongly simplified assumptions regarding research at universities, which he does not accept.

“We can of course be criticised, but the hard approach in social media and now at the lectern of the parliament might lead to our researchers withdrawing from the public debate. Whole areas of research have been hanged out on the background of positions and anecdotes that are lacking a base in the reality,” Bjarklev said.