Freedom equals excellence? There was a time.

Repressive science systems have become serious competitors for western research nations.

  • from 
  • Text: Marlene Halser
Saturn-ähnliches Dekortationsbild

Katrin Kinzelbach

Professor Dr Katrin Kinzelbach is a professor for the International Politics of Human Rights at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg. She has been a member of the selection committee for the Humboldt Foundation’s Philipp Schwartz Initiative since 2019.

Philipp Schwartz Initiative

When considering the future of academic freedom worldwide, Katrin Kinzelbach has mixed feelings. “We can see a decline in the freedom of science,” says the professor for the International Politics of Human Rights at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, who is one of Germany’s leading advocates of academic freedom. “That said, people are very willing to campaign more for the freedom of research and teaching.” Kinzelbach helped to develop the Academic Freedom Index, a measuring tool produced jointly by researchers at FAU and the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Based on a range of criteria, the Index compares the development of academic freedom in various countries since 1900; it is considered to be the most comprehensive dataset on the state of academic freedom worldwide. Until a few years ago, the development was positive, says Kinzelbach, but in the 21st century, the trend has been downwards.

“This has to do with the autocratic wave we have been witnessing for the last ten years or so. It constitutes a major challenge to science, which is increasingly global.” Currently, Russia is the most prominent example of advancing autocratisation; in political science, India, Turkey and Hungary are no longer considered to be democracies, whilst elected governments in countries like Brazil, Poland and South Africa curtail democratic norms and institutions. “Academic freedom is reliant on democracy and the rule of law,” Kinzelbach warns.

China: strategy urgently needed

Moreover, the scientific community is facing a completely new challenge, she notes: nowadays, top-level research is also being conducted in autocratic systems. “You can’t just lean back anymore and claim the greatest freedom produces the greatest excellence,” says the political scientist. “For the first time, we are now witnessing repressive academic systems, especially China, turning into serious competitors.”

“At the level of individual researchers, we have found some really good answers to repression,” says Kinzelbach, referring to programmes like the Humboldt Foundation’s Philipp Schwartz Initiative for researchers at risk. Kinzelbach is a member of the programme’s selection committee and thus knows it well.

A lack of academic freedom restricts the self-regulation of research.
Katrin Kinzelbach, Professor for the International Politics of Human Rights

“But structurally and institutionally there are still a lot of unanswered questions,” she says. What sort of partnerships can we have with universities where the research is controlled by narrow political requirements? The biggest problem is for the researchers and students on the spot, of course, Kinzelbach emphasises. But, globally speaking, a lack of academic freedom also restricts the self-regulation of research – for instance, when technical progress and ethical issues collide, as in the case of genetic engineering or collecting sensitive data. “Of course, that’s much harder to balance out in a context where not all academic disciplines are free to participate in the knowledge process,” says Kinzelbach.

“I still think the answer lies in continuing to foster networking and exchange between individuals, but I would be a lot more careful when it comes to institutional collaborations with autocracies because then there is a much greater risk of instrumentalisation,” says Kinzelbach. “Apart from which, I would like to see us engaging much more with countries where, according to the relevant rankings, excellence is not yet so well developed,” she says. “This means linking research both with social responsibility and the idea of participation – and recognising excellence amongst those who conduct research under difficult conditions.”

Next Article She monitors the monitoring