Science, Academic Freedom and Public Funding

Glenn Ricketts

Several weeks ago, NAS President Peter Wood took note here of the inquiries by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who had announced his intention look into the use of reasearch funds granted by the Commonwealth to controversial Penn State climatologist Michale Mann. In light of the so-called "climategate" revelations last Fall, Cuccinelli declared that there were sufficient grounds to justify an investigation of Mann's grant proposal to determine whether or not he had used fraudulent data in applying for public funding to underwrite his research . A firestorm of controversy arose, complete with grim comparisons to the trial of Galileo, the burning of witches and the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. When Peter offered tentative and carefully qualified support for Cuccinelli's inquiries, a spirited discussion arose among our regular readers as well.

The issue is still very much alive, and Slate carried a piece the other day by its senior editor Dahlia Lithwick and University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger, who argue there that academic freedom is a fundamental right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. We've never bought this position, and have elaborated our view of academic freedom frequently, as Peter did in this explication last year. We continue to believe that the AAUP's 1915 declaration holds up very well: academic freedom certainly covers the right of scholars to defend and advocate positions within their fields, even though these may run counter to the established wisdom, if they believe their research leads them to such conclusions. But academic freedom, in this understanding, does not entitle a scholar to hold court in the classroom on current political trends, the outcome of the world series or his part-time job as a bowling alley repair specialist. If he teaches at a public university, he can step out into the common area where the First Amendment protects his right to declare himself on these matters and just about any others as well. But neither the First Amendment nor academic freedom entitle any researcher, scientific or otherwise, to unscrutinized and unaccountable public funding. We've certainly yielded to no one in our own defense of traditional academic freedom, and we'll continue to stick to our guns. At the moment, though, the issue seems highly confused, and I hope I've been able to at least clarify our position on it.

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