28 May, 14 | by Iain Brassington
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. more…