Research Freedom and Social Progress


Research Freedom and Social Progress
Luís Alfaro Cardosoi

The question of freedom in research and development (R&D) matters has been a subject of discussion for a long time. The UNESCO 1997 Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel enlightens this issue. In spite of it, arguments often tend to include antagonistic positions whenever the funds supporting R&D, the aim of this activity and the nature (public or private) of the institutions involved, are not given due consideration. However, agreement on a few guidelines would perhaps help this analysis. It can be clear that exclusively private investments, without public partnerships or allowances are only accountable to its investors providing they are within legal frames.
When public funds either national or international (directly or indirectly coming from taxpayers), are involved, investments in R&D activities should be managed or supervised by public institutions, the ones that are obliged to justify public spending. These investments should have Terms of Reference (TOR) concerning public needs independently of the public or private nature of the R&D facilities involved, and be supported by adequacy designed contract/programs with social/economic impacts that can be perceived by the taxpayer. It is obvious that national governments are accountable for such programs.
The consistency of the TOR for these contract/programs are key elements justifying human and financial resources allocated to them. Therefore, research staff must be involved in the entire process of their design, including the very basic assumptions ones, such as the guidelines that are at the root of their adoptions. Science, including social science, will at the end of the day give (or not give) credibility to main R&D policies. The truth and transparency of this process, its public acknowledgement and judgment of, will of course be dependent on the degree of freedom of opinion and speech enjoyed not only amongst research staff but also in all circles of society within a country. Meaning that this is an issue that is not specific to R&D. This fact highlights the relevance of Science as a trigger and as an incentive towards freedom and democracy due to its embodied rationality and social impacts.
The present Covid19 evolution is a straight and forward instance of a case study that concerns the relationship between science and public empowerment, meaning freedom of speech and opinion. The first question raised by public analysis has to do with the fact that governments, responsible for the wellbeing of their population, are until now totally dependent on private pharmaceutical firms for the production of vaccines – with huge public funding. Vaccines are the most powerful tool to fight an epidemic that has so far killed more than 4 million people and seriously affected world economy. To the best of our knowledge this is due to chronic and long term constraints on the way leading to public perception of the social impact of science as a consequence of disruptions in the freedom of information on R&D investment and its role. Another issue about Covid 19 concerns the next pandemic surge and the degree of dependency of the human population at large on the interests of private business interests in the case of a probable new pandemic surge.
In other words, have we learned the lesson?
It should also be emphasized, whilst discussing the degree of freedom when designing the TOR of R&D program/contracts, that research budgets should include a component to attend to the exploration of new scientific areas valued by scientists and not included in mainstream issues. We should stress that within these midstream issues, gender and religious matters are included.
Hence, we consider that freedom of discussions in establishing research policies either at institutional, national or international levels are benchmarks towards achieving public credibility. Credibility and public support are critically important when asking for a 2% of a country’s GNP for R&D as a globally highly profitable application of funds. Thus, public interest, research investment and freedom are deeply interdependent and together constitute main assets of R&D policy towards social, economic and cultural development.
The UNESCO 1997 Recommendations on Academic Freedom provides a grounded framework that can be considered as a solid guideline helping to mitigate possible different interpretations concerning freedom within the academic world. In fact, it has clear messages on the role of universities towards, amongst others, society progress, education, research, support of human rights, peace and sustainable development. But it also deals with university accountability, self-government, security on educational and research employment.
Concerning African Universities, a specific study was done in 2016 depicting policy problems deeply affecting many of these high education and research institutions. Some of the issues discussed report the growth of fixed terms contracts, the marketisation of education, performance based funding, with neo-liberal trends affecting research. In fact, the neo-liberal content of the findings of this study can be observed in most parts of the world. The time restrictions in the dissemination of research findings is also discussed (Kwodow et al, 2016, “A Review of Academic Freedom in African Universities”, AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom nº 7).
Finally, we all have a support and updated to 2017 UNESCO Recommendation document on research and its interaction with society. In a very clear way this document specifically addresses the responsibility of science towards UN’s human dignity values, progress, justice, peace, welfare of human kind and the respect for environment; The need for science to meaningfully interact with society and vice-versa, its role in national policies and decision making, applying non-discriminatory working conditions, balancing freedoms, rights and responsibilities of research personnel are also issues integrating the document. These recommendations can be an extremely important document in discussions with political authorities on national research systems.
The assessment of a country’s democratic values is well reflected on the way its high education and research institutions are governed. This should be a constant social, economic and cultural parameter of a country.

Luís Alfaro Cardoso
World Federation of Scientific Workers


i Address on behalf of the World Federation of Scientific Workers to the “4th International Conference SUDES/ESR on Academic Freedom in Africa”, Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar (Senegal), 27-29 July. 2021.

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