Dutch rectors’ statement on scientific freedom

Translation of the letter by the board of rectors of Dutch research universities, originally published by NRC on 16 February:

Dark clouds are gathering over scientific freedom. After decades of increasingly free contact between scientists worldwide after the sense of relief that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is increasing talk of growing repression of that freedom.

The first signs have long been visible. But especially since 2008, when the financial crisis revealed the economic fragility of the world, and since 2010 when the Arab Spring devolved into a crisis of epic proportions, it has become increasingly evident that the world is moving in the direction of ever more conflicts. Europe’s inability to quickly and adequately respond to the influx of refugees, together with the growing tensions between east and west, have caused great concern among certain portions of the population, the strengthening of populist parties and increasingly strong tendency to turn inward toward your own nation.

Iran, Turkey, America?

All of this impacts the field of scientific research: the writing is on the wall for anyone who cares to read it. In Iran, a professor of disaster medicine at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel was recently sentenced to death. He was supposedly collaborating with researchers from enemy nations. In Russia, there has long been talk of a scientific community that has to follow Putin’s order or face sanctions. In a number of countries in middle and eastern Europe there is talk of increasing pressure on educators and researchers, such as in Hungary and Poland. It came as a major blow when Turkish scientists were severely limited in their freedom of travel and to conduct their research. That was further exacerbated when the government, after declaring a state of emergency, shut down entire universities and fired professors and staff. In the mean time, it has also become clear that there are serious limitations to scientific freedom in the country. And in recent weeks, the entire world was shocked by developments in the United States, a nation that had always been a bulwark for freedom and openness as essential ingredients for society.

Encroaching on scientific freedom can take two forms. The easiest to identify is the explicit form which is taking places in nations like Iran and Turkey: capital punishment, the closure of universities, firing deans and scientists on the grounds of accusations of fraternizing with ‘the opposition’ or ‘enemies of the state’. This is a telling trait of totalitarian regimes. One of the lesser measures in this vein – at least at first glance – is the recently published travel ban from the Trump administration, which discriminates against people (including researchers) on basis of their nationality and religion. Through these and other comparable measures, students are also impacted who would like to study outside their own country in order to become familiar with a different scientific culture and thereby to make a richer contribution to the world’s future.

A more difficult form to identify but equally dangerous is the implicit form of discrediting the scientific community, frequently via social media. This is nothing new: denial of facts by climate change sceptics is a well-known example, as is the undermining or manipulation of scientific research by the tobacco industry. We also see this from American government in recent tweets about climate change, vaccines and the environment. Trump’s threats to the University of Berkley to withdraw their funding when a speaker from the ‘Trump camp’ cancelled a speak out of safety concerns two weeks ago is cause for concern.

Scientific freedom under threat

These developments will impact scientists and their research in the countries where these events are occurring. But they can affect all of us. The word needs scientific freedom in order to maintain prosperity and to solve the enormous challenges which we are all facing. All of these developments hinder open communication and the exchange of ideas, and thereby scientific freedom, and will result in limiting the social gains that they can achieve.

To our delight, a resistance is emerging: researchers around the world are coming to one another’s aid. As rectors of the Dutch research universities, we also seek to provide a counterbalance. We do so through speaking out, but also through supporting organisations such as the Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF) and Scholars at Risk. Above all else, we will endeavour to safeguard our institutions from any limitations to scientific freedom and freedom of debate. But there must be more. We call upon the Dutch government, the EU member states, the European commission, the European parliament and governments elsewhere to stand firm against restrictions to scientific freedom. Let us turn the tides while we still can. History teaches us that we have looked away or have allowed ourselves be lulled into action far too often.

Signed by: prof. Bert van der Zwaan (chairperson), prof. Emile Aarts, prof. Frank Baaijens, prof. Han van Krieken, prof. Gerty Lensvelt, prof. Rianne Letschert, prof. Karel Luyben, prof. Karen Maex, prof. Arthur Mol, prof. Anja Oskamp, prof. Thom Palstra, prof. Huibert Pols, prof. Elmer Sterken, prof. Carel Stolker, prof. Vinod Subramaniam.

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