No immediate threat to freedom of scientific pursuit in the Netherlands

13 March 2018

There are no indications that scientists in the Netherlands exercise self-censorship or that they are limited in the opinions that they feel they can express, but vigilance is certainly advised. For example, the growing emphasis on socially relevant research may restrict academic freedom. These are the views of the Royal Netherland Academy of Arts and Sciences in its new publication Vrijheid van wetenschapsbeoefening in Nederland [Freedom of scientific practice in the Netherlands].

To ensure that many different voices are heard, institutions must function as open organisations that value scientific debate. It is not absolutely essential for every research group to represent a diversity of views, but what is vital is to have diversity at the national level.

In response to the motion submitted to the Dutch House of Representatives by MPs Karin Straus and Pieter Duisenberg, the Academy has considered whether there are any signs of self-censorship or a lack of diversity in Dutch science, or whether there are specific Dutch mechanisms that increase such risks.

The Netherlands guarantees research quality and integrity with a system of laws, codes of conduct and regulations that addresses such issues as impartiality, independence and responsibility. While the Academy believes that the system operates effectively, it must be updated and evaluated at regular intervals.

The Academy does see risks in research programming, however. Increasingly, society influences the questions that the academic world is obliged to investigate. Such influence can cut down on the freedom to pursue researcher-driven research. If funding bodies become too influential, research project funding can pose a risk to academic freedom as well. That risk can be avoided with firm agreements (for example by having both the funding body and the researcher sign the Academy’s Declaration of Scientific Independence).

The advisory memorandum emphasises the importance of maintaining an open organisational climate, with academic institutions encouraging disparate perspectives and mutual debate. This will give rise to a diversity of ideas and allow the organisation to benefit more from heterogenous teams. Science policy should focus on achieving diversity in research approaches and/or methodologies at the national level within each scientific discipline.

The Academy has pointed out two situations in which bias and unwanted restrictions on ideas pose the greatest risk to the freedom of scientific pursuit: on the appointment of an academic staff member, and during the peer-review process. Academic institutions must ensure transparent procedures, adequate external input in appointment advisory committees, and complete openness when drafting profile sketches for professorships.

The advisory memorandum was authored by the Academy’s Committee for the Freedom of Scientific Pursuit, headed by Nico Schrijver, Professor of International Public Law at Leiden University and a member of the Netherlands’ Council of State (Advisory Division).