Academic freedom comes with a responsibility‎ to study challenging and relevant problems

A controversial research study led by University of Toronto’s Dean of Pharmacy, looking at the effects of homeopathic remedies on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children, has reignited the debate on academic freedom vs. academic responsibility.

Naturopathic medicine includes a very diverse list of remedies and practices. Some, like fish oils, have scientifically-validated health benefits; others have been resoundingly debunked by science. Homeopathic medications are widely-cited examples of the latter. They have been shown to generally consist of only water – the original ingredients are diluted so much that there are statistically no molecules remaining per dose. While causing no harm (just like regular water), numerous studies have shown they have no effect beyond the placebo effect. This said, it is worth noting that this study also looks at the effects of homeopathic counseling, not just the effects of the homeopathic medicine. The study divides participants up into three groups, one of which receives only homeopathic counseling.

In response to announcement of the study, an open letter of concern was released signed by a large number of scientists (including two Nobel laureates), questioning the rationale for conducting this study, given the scarcity of available funding and the “need to investigate natural therapies that may actually have a potential for benefit.” They also expressed concern that “just the mounting of such a study by a highly reputable researcher at a top notch university will be used by homeopaths to justify diverse aspects of their practice, including steering patients away from evidence-based treatments.”

In applied science, where research is directed at solving technological problems with present demand, the metrics of success are easier to define and quality of research is easier to assess (e.g. does the proposed technology perform X function better than the state of the art?). In contrast, basic science is aimed at expanding our knowledge of ourselves, our societies, our surroundings and environment. Some discoveries may lead to information that can be directly applied to improve society today, but others may only provide solutions for problems we become aware of 10-20 years in the future. Most academics are aware of the vital importance of basic science to our society, our economy, and to the long-term future of innovation. Therefore, to support unconstrained exploration, the tenure system and the value of academic freedom – that scientists should be free to study any subject they deem worthy (academic freedom) – remain sacred pillars of academia.

However, given a finite and limited amount of funding available to support fundamental science, funding agencies now must select to fund only a small percentage of submitted proposals for basic research. This gives funding agencies the difficult task of defining criteria to prioritize which basic science questions need to be explored. The existential justification for basic research: “I am studying this problem because it has never been done before,” is no longer reason enough to get funded.

And why should it be? Shouldn’t academics be able to do better than that in justifying why they are spending their time on a given research problem? This is by no means meant to support the other ideological extreme view that only science with direct short-term relevance to industry is worth funding. However, it should be both possible and worthwhile to define figures of merit for the value of fundamental research projects and it is critical to hold scientists to high standards on these figures of merit.

For example, if “no one has ever looked at this before” were sufficient justification for funding a basic research project, why not fund a placebo-controlled study looking a that the effectiveness of drinking bottled water on cancer treatment outcomes compared to chemo or surgery (hypothesis: the water works no better than a placebo)? What about funding a study looking at what happens when live frogs are placed in gold sputter coaters (hypothesis: they die of suffocation in the vacuum and then get coated with gold like any other surface would in a sputter coater)? These extreme examples illustrate one potential metric that could be used to evaluate basic-science or curiosity-driven proposals: whether the researchers are probing questions that we actually don’t know the answer to or for which even intuition is lacking.

With the privileges of tenure and academic freedom comes academic responsibility. Academics play absolutely critical roles in our society: they expand the public knowledge, informing us of problems before they lead to catastrophic consequences; they provide insights into how to solve these problems; they provide a source of long-term innovation that would carry too much short-term risk for the private sector to handle; perhaps most critically, they provide young people with transferrable skills that prepare them to be productive members of an increasingly competitive global economy. Given the extremely important functions the public has entrusted them (and has paid for), it is entirely reasonable for the public to ask for some degree of accountability from academics. And with a rapidly growing university system that graduates far too many PhDs without providing them with necessary training for any careers outside of academia, creating an oversupply of academics that leads to heavily suppressed wages and benefits, it is equally reasonable to suggest that academia needs this increased accountability.

How to impose accountability and quality standards on fundamental research without stifling creativity or forward thinking is a difficult question, but also one we can’t ignore.

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3 thoughts on “Academic freedom comes with a responsibility‎ to study challenging and relevant problems

  1. Very interesting article! I agree that we want to be prioritizing scientific resources towards important problems, but we might disagree slightly on who bears the responsibility for that. I think scientists should be free to pursue anything they want, but it is up to funders and universities (through hiring practices, not censorship) to determine what is important. By effectively acting as buyers, with the scientists as sellers, the marketplace can sort out what is important. Of course, this marketplace only works for society (rather than corporate interests, e.g.) if the buyers (the funders) have the public interest at heart. This is why public funding of science is so important.

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  2. Matt, I am actually in agreement with your stance that it is funders, universities and the public (through their tax dollars they pay to funders) that are the stakeholders that need to make those calls. The reality is that in the current market there are more academics and aspiring ones than there are funding opportunities to support them. That competition forces us to prioritize which problems are the most important to solve, which can be good for science, and requires us to establish ‘quality criteria’ for fundamental science proposals. The central point of my op-ed is that we need to think carefully about what these criteria are, but we can’t pretend that we can’t have them or don’t need them. We also need to make sure that a broad segment of society’s stakeholders have a say in these criteria.

    To address FreiheitExpert’s Twitter comment, I am absolutely NOT in favour of censoring research or academic opinions based on political correctness or ‘promotion of inclusive dialogue’. If anything I am lobbying for the opposite: that academics need to be encouraged and pushed to take more risks, to push the boundaries of understanding in their fields and look at questions we actually don’t know the answer to. I agree with many pundits (like Bloomberg in his Harvard commencement speech last year and this recent NP article http://news.nationalpost.com/2015/03/10/john-carpay-universities-are-buying-peace-by-condoning-mob-censorship/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter) that Universities censoring controversial opinions is becoming a big problem. The argument I was making is that we should prioritize funding for studies that actually have the promise to expand our knowledge and that are asking questions that we do not already know the answer to. Both of these require that academics take risk in their research, While academic freedom is used as an important safeguard against censorship of presently unpopular ideas, it is also increasingly used as a defence for exactly the opposite, defending the study very “safe” (i.e. not that innovative) ideas and building echo-chamber fields of like-minded people (for example, many job openings look for carbon-copy replacements of a person retiring and some faculty job postings in the social sciences actually specify what kind of approach a candidate has to take to their problems in a specific field). In fact, one could argue that the increasing push on campuses to censor ‘unpopular’ ideas is precisely a result of creating a system where decisions on who to hire and what to study are being left largely to a small group of peers in a given field without enough input from outside stakeholders to push them to challenge the boundaries of these fields.

    Increasing dialogue between academics and their stakeholders and expanding accountability to a broader audience beyond just their peers in the same field is something I believe will encourage scientists to take more risks. If academics aren’t incentivized to take risks to be forward-thinking (given they are protected by tenure and academic freedom), who will?

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