Keynote von Prof. Dr. Katja Becker, Präsidentin der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)

Ministerkonferenz zum Europäischen Forschungsraum am 20. Oktober 2020

Federal Minister of Education and Research Karliczek,

European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Gabriel,

Research Ministers of the European Union,

Dear participants,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Freedom of scientific research, or academic freedom in the broader sense, are core values of the world we want to live in: societies that are led by academic curiosity and reflexivity, as well as exchange, diversity and international collaboration. All of these virtues contribute to scientific excellence. And in a world that is dealing with the worst pandemic in 100 years and is confronted with the threats of climate change, loss of bio-diversity and social inequality, there is a critical demand for research and knowledge. That knowledge depends on the overall quality of basic research and the degree of its political freedom and independence. Safeguarding both is essential in order to prepare our societies for unknown challenges and crises that have not yet arisen. It means creating an environment where critical thinking is appreciated and advancement is possible, be it technological or societal, medical or ethical.

Scientific freedom is a civil right in the German constitution, for example, and similarly, scientific freedom is protected in many other European constitutions, not least due to their past experiences of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. In many but not all countries, this guaranteed freedom of academic thought is linked to the institutional autonomy of universities. In this regard, I would like to underline the fact that scientific freedom not only entails self-responsible research that is independent from the state’s influence on reasoning and methods. It also concerns the institutional framework of both research and education. Universities, higher education networks and students are the core of academic discourse and scientific research. For this reason, the academic freedom of universities must be protected in particular.

The Bonn Declaration, which is in your hands today, can rely on the European Charter of civil rights, specifically Article 13. This charter unites the civil and cultural values of the European Union. The Bonn Declaration is therefore a major step forward for the EU Member States to explicitly reaffirm their commitment to these values.

However, the Declaration also mentions the possible limitations of scientific freedom:

Importantly, reasons for any limitations, particularly regarding the general welfare in a democratic society, must not be driven by political arbitrariness, but must be derived from the highest constitutional value and judged according to the very strictest criteria. Thus, academic freedom as such is not negotiable, as it is one of the foundations of democracy.

At the same time, science must always adhere to the principles of ethics and integrity. It is a common understanding of our scientific communities that the academic world has an intrinsic and strong interest in following the principles of good scientific practice: by continuously refining scientific theories, by openly and truthfully exchanging ideas and results, and by supporting early career researchers and colleagues all over the world.

As a citizen of the European Union, as a scientist and as the president of Europe’s largest funding organisation, it is my sincere wish – for all of us – that all member states will equally implement and guarantee the scientific freedom which is constitutive in liberal democracies as a civil right, and which allows for the free development of one of the most beautiful facets the human mind has to offer.

Thank you!