Keynote von Prof. Michael Murphy, Präsident der European University Alliance

Ministerkonferenz zum Europäischen Forschungsraum am 20. Oktober 2020

Minister Karliczek, Ministers for Research, Ladies and Gentlemen.

On behalf of the 850 universities and National Rectors Conferences, members of the European University Association, from 48 countries of the European Higher Education Area, I congratulate the German Presidency on this excellent initiative.

Europe appreciates the importance of academic freedom as a basic condition for advancement of science and innovation. Rigorous, fact-based and open discussion of the physical universe, society and the human condition is a fundamental part of our democracies.  Yet, it is a freedom that has been continuously challenged and, in every generation sustaining it has required constant vigilance.

In general, countries that maximise academic and research freedom, who trust their universities, who invest in them, enjoy the best research and societal returns. That is why, a decade ago, we at EUA introduced our autonomy scorecard – regularly monitoring institutional autonomy and freedom across the countries of Europe.  Our score card documents freedoms and constraints in university governance conditions, freedom and restrictions in managing the internal affairs of our institutions, latitudes and constraints in financial management as well as in staffing and academic affairs.  While constitutional and legal commitments to academic freedom, including freedom in research, are important they are insufficient if the tools to use it are absent.  I invite Ministers to examine our scorecard, to experience the diversity in practices across Europe, and benchmark your country against others as you seek to optimise the conditions for high performance in your own university system. 

Institutional autonomy does not equal academic freedom if the latter is thought of as a personal privilege of principal investigators. It is clear that limited resources have to be prioritised and that institutional leadership must do this in a way that is accountable and in accordance with the particular mission of the institution. The institution has a duty to promote research ethics and open science practices. Academic freedom is not a free-for-all, but curiosity with responsibility and accountability.

Challenges to freedom, in Europe, have ranged from the extreme to the subtle. In the 20th century, Lysenko’s suppression of scientific debate, imposition of an ideological framework on research outputs cost the lives of millions through famine in the Soviet Union..

Today’s threats may be different, but we still have governments which ban research and teaching on topics that “offend” them. At European budget negotiations, these same governments call for solidarity from others, more investment to grow their capacity in research and education, ignoring the fact that talented people flee illiberal societies, that restrictive policies promote brain drain and discourage the inflow of internationally mobile expertise so necessary for those countries’ prosperity as societies.  Solidarity initiatives will not succeed, unless accompanied by freedom in research.

Restrictions may not be overtly intentional.   A recent threat arises from potential unintended consequences of accountability frameworks, tools by which universities must, rightly, justify continued trust and investment by society.  There is a risk that governments aiming to “steer” universities with near term “key performance indicators”, “value for money” metrics or utilitarian objectives may stifle fundamental research and innovation with long term horizons. Care is needed.

Research policy, and funding to focus research on major societal challenges of the day is clearly necessary; the need for Covid-19 vaccines is self-evident. However, space must always be preserved and significant funding directed to pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

In my own university here in Cork, in 1854, George Boole published a book “The Laws of Thought” introducing new mathematical constructs in symbolic logic. For 100 years, it had no known use; today, we are meeting virtually because it’s application to electronic switching in the 1950’s enabled the development of computers and the software that operates them.  So, when developing policies on “expected impact” for research grants, always make space for potentially useful, “useless research”. And remember that the freedom to rigorously and critically debate our cultures, our heritage and our past is vital for healthy development of culture and society.

To conclude, Ministers, today’s Declaration sets out Europe’s recognition of the conditions necessary to sustain a creative continent.  It must be boldly and widely communicated; it must be a living document binding governments and society in creating public policy. Compliance with its principles must be a prerequisite for investment and collaboration.

In an era where combating existential challenges to the survival of humanity (climate change, food security and pandemic) requires collaboration between governments and institutions throughout the globe, Europe  must encourage honouring of the Declaration by all countries, to build trust, mutual respect and successful partnerships, but more importantly to allow unleashing of the creative capacity of the whole of humanity.