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On Freedom of Research: some selected readings

In the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000), after Title I, which is devoted to the theme of dignity, Title II focuses on freedom. Particular attention is paid to freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of the arts and sciences. “The arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint. Academic freedom shall be respected”. Under what conditions can we say that research is free? From what constraints, if any, does it claim to be free, and for what purposes should its freedom be preserved intact?

The texts that make up this special issue, which we offer to our readers, examine the issue of freedom of research from a variety of perspectives, emphasising the role of academic knowledge and university institutions in defending and promoting this freedom. The selected pages address the relationship between freedom and truth, question the profound significance of the autonomy of the sciences in relation to the overall growth of the edifice of knowledge, and finally touch upon the role of the Christian faith in promoting or hindering such autonomy.

In the speech prepared by John Henry Newman in 1855 for the School of Science of the Catholic University of Dublin (and never delivered because it was considered too progressive by the authorities), the future Cardinal clearly sets out the role to be played by the university, understood as that institution in which the various forms of knowledge find their place and are kept in balance, in mutual respect: «It acts as umpire between truth and truth, and, taking into account the nature and importance of each, assigns to all their due order of precedence. It maintains no one department of thought exclusively, however ample and noble; and it sacrifices none». Truth is also the criterion that governs the relationship between free scientific research and religious authorities: with an attitude of extreme confidence in both science and revelation, Newman observes that «truth of any kind can but minister to truth», and therefore there is no reason to restrict freedom of research on religious grounds. No scientific truth, if it is such, can seriously compromise a revealed truth properly understood; therefore, Newman continues, «it is a matter of primary importance in the cultivation of those sciences, in which truth is discoverable by the human intellect, that the investigator should be free, independent, unshackled in his movements; that he should be allowed and enabled, without impediment, to fix his mind intently, nay, exclusively, on his special object, without the risk of being distracted every other minute in the process and progress of his inquiry, by charges of temerariousness, or by warnings against extravagance or scandal».

Freedom of research can thus be understood as the autonomy of the researcher to set his or her own goals and pursue them through the specific methodologies of his or her discipline. The Hungarian physicist, chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, in his article The Foundations of Academic Freedom (1947), distinguishes two different ways of understanding freedom: as individual arbitrariness or, conversely, as liberation from personal ends and submission to impersonal obligations.  With regard to these opposing views, academic freedom, understood as «the right to choose one’s own problem for investigation, to conduct research free from any outside control, and to teach one’s subject in the light of one’s own opinions» does not jeopardise the unity of the edifice of knowledge, but rather promotes a form of self-coordination of the various cognitive enterprises. This fact, attested to by the development of knowledge and the actual progress of science, reveals an internal cohesion of the sciences that is ultimately based on the «the common rootedness of scientists in the same spiritual reality», that is, on the development of science as a collective search for truth. It is precisely this internal cohesion that offers a solution to the disagreement between the two visions of freedom outlined above: the originality of the scientist and respect for the tradition that has led to the definition of accepted scientific standards go hand in hand, so that «Academic freedom can claim to be an efficient form of organization for discovery in all fields of systematic study controlled by a tradition of intellectual discipline».

Thus, freedom of research does not imply a rejection of the constraints and laws that are inherent to any discipline, but presents itself as freedom for the sake of truth, the ultimate goal of knowledge, which can be achieved in a rigorous and well-founded way precisely by adhering to appropriate methodological protocols and norms. The relationship between freedom and truth also appears in John Paul II's address to scientists and students in Cologne Cathedral (1980). Describing the relationship between faith and science as a "dialogue of equals", the Pope warns against reducing scientific knowledge to a mere technical and functional fact, aimed at manipulating the world and human beings. He then urges a renewed impetus towards a common search for truth: «The truth and everything that is true represents a great good to which we must turn with love and joy. Science too is a way to truth; for God's gift of reason, which according to its nature is destined not for error, but for the truth of knowledge, is developed in it». John Paul II observes how the reduction of science to scientific-technical manipulation risks compromising human freedom. Against this tendency, in a passage that deserves to be quoted in full, he affirms the legitimacy of purely theoretical research that does not immediately lead to practical applications: «Certainly, science has a meaning of its own and a justification when it is recognized as being capable of knowing truth, and when truth is recognized as a human good. Then also the demand for the freedom of science is justified; in what way, in fact, could a human good be realized if not through freedom? Science must be free also in the sense that its implementation must not be determined by direct purposes of social utility or economic interest. That does not mean, however, that on principle it must be separated from “praxis.” But to be able to influence praxis, it must first be determined by truth, and therefore be free for truth».

Finally, if research is "free for the sake of truth", it becomes increasingly clear that freedom does not concern science, except in a metaphorical sense, but rather the person of the researcher. This point is emphasised by Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti in the entry "Autonomy" in the Interdisciplinary Dictionary of Science and Faith (2002): «Freedom of research is not "freedom of science," but rather, "freedom of the subject doing science." Thus, such a freedom participates in those characteristics that reveal the meaning of any personal freedom as a self-determination of the acting subject, which, is fully accomplished in the choice for the true and the good». Research freedom is thus realized in the person of the researcher, in whom motivations, aspirations, skills, and ethical positions converge. Rooted in the personal dimension, research freedom, Tanzella-Nitti emphasizes, also calls into question the notion of responsibility: «As individual freedom is not freedom for being what one is not but that of becoming what one is called to be, so freedom of research cannot be understood as having the liberty of doing whatever science and technology allow us to do. On the contrary, this freedom is that of leading science towards its own end». Truly free scientific research is that which tends to fulfil itself by attaining its proper end, truth, and thus seeks to "become what it is"; any scientific research that deviates from its truthful end risks falling prey to forces that could bind it to false interests in a much more drastic way: «If science renounced its relationship with truth by considering truth as something provisional or too idealistic to attain, and accepted a merely instrumental and functional vision of its own activity, it would lose its autonomy by letting economy, politics, and the play of public consensus decide its goals».

The texts we have briefly presented outline a path from the freedom of research to the freedom of the researcher, understood as a personal subject capable of responsibly assuming the commitment that has always been inscribed in scientific activity: an ever deeper understanding of reality. In truth, freedom of research is not a constraint, but its own condition of possibility; the researcher who does not want to "bind" himself to the truth will end up being bound, against his will, to changing ideologies and to the right of the fittest. In contrast, the freedom of the researcher is a guarantee of reliability, not only for the scientific community but, more generally, for democratic society.


Stefano Oliva