Consigned to the Index

There’re probably times when all of us have had a solution, and just had to find a problem for it.  It’s an easy trap; and it’s one into which I suspect Gretchen Goldman may have fallen in an article in Index on Censorship about scientific freedom and how it’s under threat from disputes about Federal funding in the US.  No: I’m not going to be arguing against scientific freedom here.  Only against a certain use of the appeal to scientific freedom in response to a particular problem. First up, let’s note the points on which Goldman may well be correct.  She notes that the disputes in the US about federal funding that have led to big cuts and a short-but-total government shutdown are very bad for science.  She points out that political machinations even meant that researchers working in government-funded areas couldn’t access their emails.  This had direct and indirect consequences, all of which were pretty undesirable.  For example,

[m]any government scientists were not allowed to access email, much less their laboratories. One scientist noted that his “direct supervisor … confiscated all laptop computers on the day of the shutdown”.

Without access to work email accounts, federal scientists were also prevented from carrying out professional activities that went beyond their government job duties. Several scientists pointed out that their inability to access emails significantly slowed down the peer-review process and, therefore, journal publication.

In the wider sense, to have science and funding bodies that are vulnerable to political shenanigans isn’t good for science, and is probably not good for humanity.  You don’t have to think that research is obligatory to think that it’s often quite a good thing for science to happen all the same.  And shutdowns are particularly bad for students and junior researchers, whose future career might depend on the one project they’re doing at the moment; if a vital field trip or bit of analysis or experiment is liable to get pulled at almost any moment, they don’t have a reputation yet to tide them over.

So far, so good.  However, things are iffier elsewhere.  The transitional statement – a statement that comes towards the end of the article – is this:

There are huge ramifications for scientists’ freedom to conduct their work.

The philosopher in me is yelling at this point, “Well, it depends what you mean by ‘freedom’, doesn’t it?”.

I mean, in one sense, freedom to work is restricted – freedom here would be understood as positive freedom.  In just the same way, my freedom to work would be restricted if the University of Manchester decided not to provide online access to journals.  But there’s a couple of problems if that’s what’s meant.  First, it’s a complaint that could, with a little modification, be made all the time: a little more funding would always be welcome; there’re always things that a person – scientist or not – can’t do because the resources aren’t there.  Being unable to access your email is at an extreme end of that, but the general point stands.  Not being able to do things that you could do counterfactually means – tautologously – that you can’t do them, and not being able to do things means that you’re less free in the positive sense.  But that’s a fairly trivial point, and trades on only one facet of freedom – and possibly not the most obvious one.

Second, that’s not what a lot of the article seemed to be talking about.  A large part of it appeared to concentrate on negative freedom, and how that’s important for science.  Here’s a few quotations from the article:

The crisis began in March 2013, when the US government’s budget was sequestered, leading to immediate automatic cuts in public spending. Then in October, amid further political wrangles about the budget, the government closed down for two and a half weeks. Both events had serious implications for the rights to free speech of scientists working for or with the federal government.

and

The right to attend conferences is part of scientific free speech. Conferences are where ideas are fostered and collaborations born. Scientific free speech includes the right of scientists to express their professional and personal opinions on a topic, and this also includes the right to publish and contribute meaningfully to the scientific community. In other words, scientific free speech is the right to be a scientist.

and

On 1 October 2013, the US government went into a partial shutdown because of Congress’ failure to approve a budget for the fiscal year 2014. During the 16-day shut-down – the third longest in US history – the government sent hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors on temporary leave and many programmes and services were suspended. Again, the scientific community’s right to free speech was undermined, this time with even more of an impact than had been felt under the sequester.

The emphasis is all mine.  What’s the problem here?  Simply that not being afforded the capacity to do things is being conflated with being prevented from doing them, and treated thereby as a violation of free speech.  And it isn’t any such thing.

Free speech means that governments don’t get to prevent you saying things that you want to say.  But it doesn’t follow from that that they have an obligation to provide you with the means of saying it.  Were there any evidence that scientists were being deliberately targeted for political reasons, that might have been a problem of free speech – and a particularly acute one if they were not allowed to speak, or publish.  But there’s no question of scientific speech or research being forbidden here; royal cock-up as the whole situation was, nothing was forbidden – it was just a whole lot more difficult.

The right to publish and contribute meaningfully means that noone is permitted deliberately to stop you, at least not without a good reason.  But noone is entitled to go to conferences, or even to do science; and it’s just silly to say that it’s a free-speech issue if you’re allowed but are unable.  Not in the US it isn’t, and not because of Federal shutdowns.

There’s all kinds of complaints that one might make about the way that science loses out to political dispute.  Erosion of free speech isn’t one of them.

It’s a solution to a different problem.

Edited for clarity, 30.v.14 – IB