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Why should we not confuse academic freedom with the autonomy of science?

Why should we not confuse academic freedom with the autonomy of science?

Over the past twenty years, profound disturbances in our public space have had major repercussions for the university environment. An example of this appeared at the beginning of 2022, during the controversy surrounding “Islamic leftism,” which was fueled by the minister responsible for higher education. Most of them condemned this direct interference of political power in the professional activities of academics, in the name of the freedoms that democracies grant to those whose job it is to produce and transmit knowledge.

History of the defense of academic freedom

The defense of academic freedom is a legacy of Enlightenment philosophy. It is based on the conviction that the search for truth, without any hindrance or hindrance, is the condition for the progress of society as a whole. This requires protecting scientists from threats from political power, but also from activist pressures.

In France, this democratic principle has been included, in a piecemeal way, in higher education laws since the Edgar Faure Law in 1968. But the concept of “academic freedom” was only explicitly mentioned in the Research Programming Law passed in December. November 24, 2020. It states that from now on “academic freedoms are the guarantee of excellence in French higher education and research.” The use of the plural means that our law defends, on the one hand, the freedom of research and teaching of every academic and, on the other hand, the administrative independence of universities.

Compliance with certain obligations

However, it must be made clear that teacher-researchers only benefit from this freedom in the exercise of their professional functions. However, like all other citizens, they must refrain from making insulting, defamatory or racist comments. Moreover, as public servants, they must respect the rules arising from the Civil Service Law, such as duty of reserve, impartiality, professional discretion, etc.

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“Everything is political”?

All these terms today give rise to different interpretations because academics play a more important role than before in public debate. The production of knowledge and the search for truth remain among the basic arguments they put forward in defense of their academic freedoms. However, some of them, especially in the social sciences, reject the idea of ​​the objectivity of science by asserting that “everything is political.”

But if everything is political, it seems legitimate for political authority to interfere in the activities of academics. For this reason, we cannot, in my opinion, defend academic freedoms if we do not, at the same time, defend the autonomy of science by explaining what distinguishes academic discourse and political discourse. To move this thinking forward, academics will need to form a true scientific community to agree on standards that are common to all. This unfortunately is not the case.

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