In response to crackdowns on academic freedom in eastern and northern Europe, a member of the European Parliament has proposed a law to safeguard research freedom across the continent.
The proposal was presented to the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) on 18 September by Christian Ehler, a German Christian Democrat in the European People’s Party. It suggests that Europe needs a solid legal basis to protect the freedom of researchers and to prevent further erosion of academic freedom. Threats to research freedom have been seen in some countries in the European Union, such as Hungary, Poland and Sweden, over the past decade.
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Kurt Deketelaere, head of the League of European Research Universities based in Leuven, Belgium, says that existing EU laws are confusing, making it difficult to prove a legal violation of academic freedom. “It would be very nice if we get a legal text, which clearly states the rules of the game,” he says.
Members of the European Parliament began to be concerned about academic freedom after the Hungarian government forced the Central European University (CEU) — a research institution founded by Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros — to all but leave its main campus in Budapest in 2018. The university’s main campus is now located in Vienna. The move was seen as an antisemitic attack on Soros and as an effort to clamp down on the institution’s goal of supporting democracy in eastern Europe. In 2020, the European Court of Justice ruled that Hungary had breached EU and World Trade Organization laws as well as the CEU’s rights to academic freedom and institutional autonomy by forcing it out of the country.
Also in 2018, the Hungarian government banned university courses, including PhD programmes, on gender studies. And according to reports, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences banned a conference presentation on the under-representation of women in computer science. In 2019, it further impinged on academic freedom by transferring decision-making powers of some of the nation’s institutions to foundations, which have members with lifetime appointments made by the government, according to the European Universities Association, a non-profit organization in Brussels. The changes undermine university autonomy, said the association in a statement. In January, amid concerns about the governance reforms, the European Commission prohibited 21 universities in Hungary from applying for research funding or using certain EU funds for student exchanges.
Ehler says that it is “unacceptable” that the European Court of Justice had to rely on international trade law to condemn Hungary in what he says is an “unprecedented breach” of academic freedom. Europe needs a dedicated law to “give academics legal refuge in case their freedom to exercise their profession is threatened”, Ehler told Nature in a statement.
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Researchers in other EU countries, including Sweden, are also struggling under more-oppressive political environments. In 2021, a politician e-mailed Malmö University to question the syllabus of a course on education and society, raising concerns about political interference.
And earlier this year, the Swedish government introduced reforms to the governing bodies of public universities, arguing that changes are needed to guard against spying and theft of intellectual property by agents from China and elsewhere. But researchers and universities say the reforms threaten their autonomy and academic freedom.
Ehler’s proposal says that governments should avoid interfering with and imposing undue restrictions on scientific freedom. He suggests creating a legally binding framework for governmental bodies that respects and protects research freedom.
Up for debate
Michael LaBelle, an energy-policy researcher at the CEU, says that academics in Hungary feel that they must tread carefully. For example, if they speak out or publish work that the authorities dislike, they could miss out on promotions or research funding. He supports the proposed law but says that it won’t protect against these more subtle penalties.
In written comments to the ITRE committee read at the meeting, Ladislav Ilčić, a Croatian member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, warned of the dangers of giving scientists “absolute” freedom. Too much freedom could lead to the justification of dropping a nuclear bomb or killing a person because “it was an interesting scientific experiment”, he wrote.
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Ehler countered that too much academic freedom is not the problem and that there are legal restrictions on dropping an atomic bomb that go well beyond discussions of academic freedom.
European Parliament members on the committee have about a week to submit amendments to the proposal. Once those are agreed to by the committee and parliament as a whole, the European Commission must agree to draw up legislation. That bill must be passed by the European Parliament and European Council before the law is established. The whole process could take several years.
Ehler urged researchers to speak out in support of the proposed law: “I would encourage the whole academic sector to get involved in this process — we need them to lead here.”