For more than one and a half years now, since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives around the globe. Academia and higher education, spheres that are usually ripe with – and thrive on – vibrant social interactions and the international exchange of people and ideas, have seen rapid and drastic changes in most countries. These include sweeping university and library closures, sudden shifts to remote work, learning and teaching, purely virtual conferences, and strict mobility restrictions for researchers and students.
At the same time, science has been at the forefront of researching the novel Coronavirus and its effects on humans. And thanks to scholarly efforts in various disciplines – ranging from virology and medical research to social psychology, economics and legal studies – we have come to know a lot more about the potential consequences of different public health measures for individual groups or society at large. We also learned very early on in the pandemic, through the case of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang who was silenced by the Chinese party state, how essential free science and academia are in preventing and appropriately responding to such existential threats as a highly contagious and deadly virus. Dr. Li was one of the first to sound the alarm on the newly discovered SARS-CoV-2 virus in late December 2019, but he was summoned by the Chinese authorities and subsequently forced to denounce his warnings as false rumors. He died a few weeks after his release from the very same disease he had rightly recognized as dangerous, which he had contracted from an early patient. While Dr. Li's experience is unique in its tragic outcome, it stands for the stories of the many other Chinese health professionals, scientists and journalists who were censored and reprimanded by the Chinese party state for reporting on the outbreak. This pattern, which indicates that the Chinese government prioritizes its public image over a swift and effective response to a rapidly spreading disease, has repeated itself in many other countries where respect for free press and scholarship is low.
The significance of academic freedom for preventing and adequately managing a pandemic is clear; the answer to the reverse question, however, is less obvious: How has the pandemic affected academic freedom around the world? Using data from the new Academic Freedom Index (AFi) – a near-global time series dataset, the second edition of which was published in March 2021 – we set out to quantitatively investigate this question. We found that the global trend lines in academic freedom do not reveal a significant change when we compare 2020 to the previous years. Similarly, when zooming in on individual countries or territories, we found that there are several cases in which country-level AFi scores declined in 2020 (e.g., Belarus, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, or Zambia) – but none of these negative developments can be clearly and unequivocally attributed to the spread of the Coronavirus. Even so, it is a plausible hypothesis that certain pandemic-related politics and measures reinforced some developments that had already begun before the pandemic hit. However, there are clear limitations to a quantitative approach in terms of how much it can tell us about actual links between the public health crisis and changes in academic freedom. Smaller pandemic-induced changes in academic freedom levels in particular are likely not to register in the aggregated index data at all, or they are hard to distinguish from random statistical fluctuation. However, this does not mean that these changes are not highly relevant within their context, or that they may not reveal an even stronger effect in the medium or long term that is simply not yet visible in the 2020 data.
With this series of thought pieces, we are consciously looking beyond the aggregated index data to shed light on different intersection points between the COVID-19 pandemic – which is still ongoing as we write these lines – and academic freedom. We wanted to know which effects of the crisis can already be observed and what potential future consequences may look like. To this end, the first article in the series dissects the risks that are inherent in the precipitous mass move to – often transnational – modes of online teaching, including the expanded opportunities this development presents for the surveillance of scholars and students as well as how it influences pressures toward self-censorship. The second work in the series is a podcast interview in which we discuss the impact that pandemic-related emergency measures have had on academia and academic freedom – and how differences between countries correspond with different regime types and policies. The third piece reflects on the consequences of prolonged and widespread mobility restrictions for researchers who normally depend on – but find it impossible to – conduct field research, while another article discusses the ways in which the pandemic has exacerbated political polarization in democratic societies, resulting in heightened levels of public harassment facing scholars. How could such developments affect academic freedom in the long term? We close the series with an essay about the problems that arise when the role of scientists blurs and blends with the functions traditionally fulfilled by politicians and policymakers, the ways in which this manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic – and the lessons that can be learned from the current crisis for the interplay between science, policymakers and the public.
The ‘Zoomification’ of Academia: Addressing Risks to Academic Freedom
The ‘Zoomification’ of Academia: Addressing Risks to Academic Freedom
by Thorsten Benner, Victor Brechenmacher
Before early 2020, Zoom, Webex and other video conferencing platforms were not a daily presence in the lives of most professors and students. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed that. Over the course of repeated lockdowns, countless professors and students around the world – at least, those fortunate enough to have access to computers and the internet – have come to rely on web conferencing programs for teaching and learning, with many classroom discussions now taking place online. In many cases, public forums and university conferences have shifted to virtual spaces as well.
This trend has some obvious upsides: Platforms like Zoom have prevented academic life from grinding to a complete halt. International students, many of whom left university campuses for their home countries, have participated in their programs from afar. Online workshops and discussion events have allowed universities to bring together speakers from around the world with plenty of flexibility and a relatively low carbon footprint.
Yet, the move to virtual discussion spaces has also raised questions about potential risks, such as increased surveillance and (self-)censorship. These dangers are by no means new – surveillance and censorship have long plagued offline academia – but the shift to online learning has exacerbated them. The degree to which the situation has deteriorated is hard to measure, in part because self-censorship is extremely difficult to observe or quantify. However, not knowing the full extent of the problem does not mean that we cannot take steps to mitigate the risks.
So far, debates and writings on online learning and academic freedom have focused on two main problems: first, that virtual platforms have the ability, as private companies, to act as censors and shut down online class sessions and discussions at the request of authoritarian governments; second, that the heightened risk of surveillance, harassment and other forms of political interference in online instruction can have a chilling effect on the free speech of both faculty and students.
This article discusses a number of cases that illustrate these dangers and outlines potential remedies for university administrators and faculty. The good news is that thoughtful scholars and researchers have already begun assembling a toolkit of best practices to mitigate risks. Many of the existing suggestions have emerged from the field of China studies in the United States and the United Kingdom, whose scholars have been at the forefront of the online learning debate. But their insights are also applicable to teaching in continental Europe and beyond.
Censorship by Online Platforms
Initial concerns at the onset of the pandemic focused on the ability – and apparent willingness – of private platforms to censor online teaching and discussions at the behest of authoritarian regimes and other outside actors. Two high-profile cases in 2020, in which Zoom shut down or disrupted online sessions for what appeared to be overtly political reasons, threw the issue into sharp relief.
In the first example from June 2020, Zoom came under fire for suspending the accounts of several human rights activists who were using the platform to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and discuss the Chinese government’s intensifying crackdown on political dissent in Hong Kong – both topics that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers taboo. In a statement on the incident, Zoom explained that it had terminated the Tiananmen-related meetings and associated accounts at the request of the Chinese government, which claimed that the meetings were illegal. Strikingly, several of the suspended accounts and events were based in Hong Kong and the United States, highlighting the potential cross-border reach of state censorship in the hands of private companies. Going forward, Zoom pledged to thwart the international reach of Chinese state control, stating that it would “not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China.” But, as critics pointed out, the company made no such commitments to users located inside mainland China and did not clarify whether it would actively monitor online meetings to ensure their ‘legality.’
A second controversy emerged in September 2020, when Zoom shut down several academic events in connection with Palestinian activist Leila Khaled. Khaled, who initially rose to prominence as a plane hijacker in the 1970s, was scheduled to speak at an online seminar with San Francisco State University. Pro-Israel activists learned about the scheduled event and called on Zoom to forcibly cancel it. The company complied, arguing that the seminar might violate US terrorism laws due to Khaled’s membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which the US Department of State has designated as a terrorist group. Zoom also canceled seminars related to Khaled at several other American and British universities, as well as another seminar with Khaled co-hosted by San Francisco State University and the University of California, Merced in April 2021.
Fortunately, such outright censorship of academic and activist voices by online learning platforms is rare. In addition, a Zoom statement from April 2021 offered grounds for cautious optimism: going forward, the company vowed to act on content violation reports for academic events only if those reports originate from the account holder or meeting host. However, the new policy will not apply in cases where “Zoom determines that there is legal or regulatory risk to Zoom if it does not act; the report alleges an immediate threat to the physical safety of any person; or the meeting or webinar is unrelated to the institution’s academics or operations.” Using these caveats, the platform may still comply with censorship requests by authoritarian regimes in certain situations. As legal scholar Donald Clarke has argued: “Perhaps the only answer to problems like this is federal legislation that prohibits companies from cooperating with certain kinds of demands.”
Even in the absence of direct censorship by online platforms, virtual instruction may inadvertently create new opportunities for states – especially authoritarian governments – to spy on academics and students.
In the early days of the pandemic, Zoom made false claims in its product descriptions and advertising, misleading customers into believing that the company supported end-to-end encryptions. In truth, as critics eventually pointed out, the company merely offered standard encryption, which remains susceptible to outside manipulation. In addition, Zoom routinely routed some of its users’ data through servers in China, where the data could be subject to surveillance by state authorities even if the users in question were not based in China. Only in October 2020 did Zoom introduce true end-to-end encryption for its calls, but by that point, there was already considerable damage to its reputation. And even so, end-to-end encryption of video calls is no cure-all against surveillance. For instance, in the case of insufficient security measures, surveillance can still be conducted by the meeting participants themselves. For instance, in May 2021, a Rwandan diplomat in the United States was accused of spying on a prominent Rwandan dissident’s daughter by repeatedly logging on to her university’s Zoom meetings using an alias.
Another concern is that universities often store webinars recordings in online repositories whose content is not end-to-end encrypted. These so-called learning management systems – which include Canvas, Blackboard and Moodle, among other private providers – tend to also house additional course materials, such as readings and assignments. As with webinars, their content is subject to potential surveillance and/or exploitation by state authorities. For instance, in one case in September 2020, University of Mississippi professor James Thomas participated in a two-day ‘scholar strike’ for racial justice. In response, Mississippi state authorities initiated a controversial audit of Thomas, demanding access to his materials on Blackboard, including “class syllabi, class lesson plans and all course material” as well as “any communication sent or received” via his Blackboard account.
Although universities relied on private learning management systems even before the pandemic, the growing shift to online instruction during the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated fears about the platforms’ potential role in state surveillance. China has been a central point of concern in this context: as a result of the pandemic, many Chinese students studying at international universities returned to their home country for online study. However, due to China’s stringent internet restrictions – sometimes referred to as the “Great Firewall” – students often found it difficult or impossible to access their universities’ learning management systems from inside China. In response, some Western universities have turned to Chinese tech companies, including the e-commerce and tech giant Alibaba, to provide technical workarounds. For example, multiple British universities have partnered with a group of companies – including Alibaba – to offer their China-based students access to online course materials.
Alibaba’s service is essentially a CCP-approved virtual private network run by the company’s cloud services division. An early description touted Alibaba as being “fully legal and compliant with Chinese government regulations and laws.” But, as several British academics explained in an open letter criticizing the partnership, Chinese domestic laws “allow for extensive censorship of public content on social media and news websites, as well as of personal communications, based on broad and vague criteria.” Companies that fail to censor objectionable content are “subject to massive fines, prosecution and even cancellation of business licenses” – suggesting that Alibaba could feel legally obligated to monitor and censor ‘objectionable’ academic content.
Furthermore, as the open letter points out:
“Repression in China is targeted, and depends on identifying people regularly accessing content or online activities seen as problematic (particularly those engaging in any form of collective action national or local authorities find problematic), and focusing monitoring on such ‘suspect’ people. Using the Alibaba Cloud service, UK universities will not be able identify what kinds of monitoring and censorship happen when and to whom. Given the Chinese government’s demonstrated AI capacities, this monitoring could include automated profiling of student[s’] use of materials or interaction with the teaching to infer political reliability or political inclinations. By providing the Alibaba service to their students, UK universities could be complicit in enabling such profiling.”
These patent security risks notwithstanding, the Alibaba model seems to be thriving. Several Canadian universities – including the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo and the University of Alberta – have signed on to Alibaba’s services, as have several dozen universities in Australia and New Zealand. These institutions are clearly aware of the risks involved, and in some cases even acknowledge as much on their websites – warning, for instance, that there is “an inherent risk of monitoring for individuals in mainland China.” However, this has not affected the model’s success to date.
Arguably the most urgent and widespread danger facing academic freedom in the Zoom era is self-censorship by students and faculty. This trend is largely driven by fears about online surveillance and potential reprisals, especially at the hands of authoritarian governments. The tendency to self-censor is also not a new concern, but one that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. As early as 2019, for instance, Human Rights Watch published a 12-point Code of Conduct for institutions of higher learning on how to thwart Chinese government attacks on academic freedom, including advice on how to avoid self-censorship. That same year, the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee said it had “heard alarming evidence about the extent of Chinese influence on the campuses of UK universities” – including several instances in which university administrators, seemingly at their own initiative, discouraged professors from speaking out or holding events on topics like Taiwan or Tibet. Similar trepidation concerning China’s overseas influence, which also preceded the advent of online learning, has been reported at Australian universities. As some scholars have pointed out, British and Australian universities share an important feature: they operate using limited – and shrinking – public funding, leaving them increasingly dependent on fee-paying international students, vast numbers of whom hail from China. Looking beyond China, a study on academic freedom in several Arab countries – most of them autocracies – concluded that “85 percent of respondents report[ed] that they were somewhat likely, likely, or very likely to self-censor in online classes, in emails or over social media.”
The Zoom era has only heightened these worries. Most of the available evidence to date is anecdotal – there are few comprehensive studies, in part because self-censorship is notoriously hard to measure – and what does exist focuses on China, possibly owing to the unique sophistication of the Chinese government’s surveillance apparatus and the large number of international students from China. One Chinese student attending US university classes from mainland China reported his concern about “discussing sensitive topics in China, since the data [transmitted] through local VPN was under possible scrutiny.” Another student told SupChina that she felt uneasy when a professor played a song forbidden in mainland China, thinking to herself, “wow, my neighbors may choose to report me on this.” In addition, professors at both American and Australian universities noted that their China-based students have seemed less forthcoming or willing to challenge the CCP party line on sensitive topics since the shift to online teaching. There have even been isolated reports of Chinese students at Australian universities monitoring other classmates’ views on Chinese politics: in one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a China-based student at the University of Melbourne “harassed and intimidated a young female student after he noticed a Hong Kong revolution flag in her bedroom during a class Zoom call,” and threatened to release a recording of her on TikTok.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty have often engaged in outright self-censorship in their online classes, or were encouraged – if not pressured – by university administrators to avoid certain topics. For instance, a recent Human Rights Watch report includes the case of an Australian professor of Chinese studies who was pushed by university officials to offer a “sanitized version” of his course to China-based students. As the professor told Human Rights Watch:
“When all our teaching went online, I got an email from IT leadership, saying they had set up a VPN into China, there was some concern re the content of teaching. Another academic, who was also teaching another Chinese Studies unit, had offered a “sanitized” version of that course for PRC students. Is that something I would be willing to consider for my course? I said, ‘No I’m not willing to do that.’”
The long shadow of state surveillance extends into virtual classrooms in democracies around the world. According to Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, professors at the University of Toronto “have been advised to be aware of potential difficulties such as questions of ‘privacy, surveillance and free inquiry […] among students who reside in countries with different laws, cultural norms and monitoring by law enforcement.’” Specifically, a University of Toronto teaching assistant claimed that he was warned about ethical concerns around online classes with students in China and told to “steer discussions away from controversial topics that could run students into trouble.” Similarly, a 2020 survey of 20 students and faculty at Emory University in the US quoted one professor as saying, “I am concerned that many of the social and political issues discussed in my classes might be sensitive issues in China […] I would have to be more cautious about any topics, discussions, or materials I would include in the class.” According to the free-speech advocacy group FIRE, Hong Kong-based journalist Tom Grundy was invited to the University of Leeds for a Zoom class discussion, but was asked “to not focus on [Hong Kong] protests per se” out of “safety concerns,” as many students in attendance were from China. Grundy withdrew from the event, writing (in a since deleted Tweet) that he sympathized with “the pressure mainland students studying abroad may be under” but did not believe “western institutions should bend to it.”
It is worth noting that some anecdotal evidence points in the opposite direction: In late 2020, for instance, the Harvard Crimson interviewed 10 Harvard University faculty who were teaching potentially sensitive material and concluded that anticipated issues of surveillance or self-censorship “largely have not materialized.” Earlier that year, Harvard University’s IT department had published a web manual for faculty members, listing countries with potential political or security concerns for students, including Belarus, China, Iran, Iraq, Oman, Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates. However, faculty told the Harvard Crimson that “they have not had to re-work any lesson plans, and that students have not reached out to them with concerns over material considered sensitive in their home country.” Even so, these findings should be taken with a grain of salt: for one, the absence of state censorship or political reprisals does not rule out the possibility of ongoing surveillance. And the mere risk of surveillance is itself enough to seriously stifle academic freedom, as evidenced by the various restrictions – and outright self-censorship – that some universities and academics have resorted to over the past 18 months.
In many cases, universities have worked to mitigate surveillance risks by tightening privacy precautions and taking other practical measures that do not directly impose on the substance of teaching. According to the Wall Street Journal, several US colleges and universities took steps last year to shield their students and faculty from political risks stemming from Hong Kong’s new national security law, which claimed extraterritorial reach for any statements endangering China’s security. Their concerns were amplified by the effects of the pandemic:
“At Princeton University, students in a Chinese politics class will use codes instead of names on their work to protect their identities. At Amherst College, a professor is considering anonymous online chats so students can speak freely. And Harvard Business School may excuse students from discussing politically sensitive topics if they are worried about the risks.”
Some US professors teaching China-related courses introduced blind grading or content warnings for politically sensitive material, while others said they were avoiding Zoom altogether. According to Human Rights Watch, many Australian academics have adopted similar precautions when teaching China-based students, with some professors electing not to record their online sessions or allowing students to submit their work anonymously.
Based on a review of various guidelines issued by academic associations and free-speech groups, we have distilled 10 measures that university administrators and faculty can incorporate to better mitigate the risk of censorship and surveillance:
- Adopt a broad definition of what counts as “the classroom” that includes all means of online learning – including webinars, email listservs, massive open online courses (MOOCs) and learning management systems – and extend existing academic freedom protections to those spaces.
- Seek the input of faculty and IT professionals on questions like which online instruction platforms to use and how best to use them.
- Negotiate more robust contracts with software providers:
- Academic institutions should build clauses to protect academic freedom into their contracts with video conferencing platforms and learning management systems;
- Contracts should allow the companies to block content only if doing otherwise would lead the software provider to violate applicable domestic law;
- Contracts should set clear and stringent limits on what types of data the provider is allowed to collect and store;
- Contracts should explicitly state the software provider’s policies regarding potential state interference;
- Contracts should include financial and legal consequences for software providers that take actions that threaten academic freedom, e.g., by dropping students from classes, providing their data to third parties, monitoring content, or allowing other actors to infringe on the freedoms of scholars and students.
- Openly publish contracts with software providers to ensure transparency and establish collective best practices.
- Use alternative or multiple online learning platforms to avoid dependence on a singular provider and make it harder for external actors to conduct surveillance. These precautionary steps should be taken at the university level and not be left to the discretion of individual instructors, so that robust alternatives are available to anyone who needs them.
- Raise awareness among faculty about the risks of teaching online courses to students who are citizens of authoritarian states and offer resources and training on the topic, e.g., by providing an up-to-date guidebook of internet regulations and surveillance concerns in different countries.
- Protect foreign-based students from outside surveillance and potential political reprisals. This could include:
- disclosing potential risks to students in advance;
- not recording online classes;
- judiciously choosing which course materials are shared or stored online without unduly limiting students’ access to essential educational material like textbooks;
- allowing students to hand in their assignments anonymously;
- giving students the option to participate in webinars using aliases and with their video feeds disabled;
- administering security screenings for students’ electronic devices and offering students – especially those studying abroad – the chance to acquire these devices directly from the university so as to avoid pre-installed surveillance software.
- Establish complaint mechanisms for international students. To gauge the impacts, risks and benefits of online instruction and specific platforms, universities should offer a way for students – especially those living abroad in politically fraught contexts – to make anonymous complaints about surveillance, harassment, censorship, and self-censorship. To ensure accountability, universities should report annually on the complaints received and any actions taken.
- Develop a privacy code that prohibits professors and students from publishing private correspondence and class discussions. Any violation of this privacy code should be classified as academic misconduct.
- Where applicable, reduce universities’ reliance on fee-paying overseas students, especially those from authoritarian countries, by increasing public funding for academic institutions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online tools at universities around the world. By the same token, the crisis has heightened the dangers inherent in using these tools – and judging by the available evidence, academic freedom may pay a steep price. This is particularly true for universities in open societies with students now located in the jurisdictions of authoritarian governments that allow no political dissent. Fortunately, academic associations and universities have already come up with a number of promising measures on how to mitigate the risks. Still, avenues for further research abound: future studies could, for instance, systematically analyze the true extent of surveillance and (self-)censorship and evaluate how well mitigation measures work in practice.
As some states – especially those with high vaccination rates – exit lockdown mode and universities slowly resume in-person classes, the risk of surveillance and self-censorship may abate somewhat, but it will not disappear. Universities will continue to conduct at least part of their teaching online, just as they did before the pandemic. Meanwhile, many universities in open societies continue to partner with authoritarian regimes in the offline world, be it through financial ties or new campuses abroad. As a result, it is crucial to further explore the risks to academic freedom that are arising from the internationalization of the academic sector in democracies. Some actors are already engaging in this important work, including the British Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group, which brings together academics and civil society to deepen public debate on how to safeguard academic freedom. Other democracies would do well to learn from this effort.
COVID-19: Field Research Needs to Find a Way Back Fast After the Pandemic
COVID-19: Field Research Needs to Find a Way Back Fast After the Pandemic
by Ilyas Saliba
Until the pandemic hit, academics from a wide range of disciplines relied heavily on work out in the field for their research. Not being able to carry out such fieldwork has had a negative effect on both increasing scientific knowledge and making progress.
Many academics have had to rethink their data collection methods. Some have had to change them altogether. You cannot undertake an archaeological dig in Upper Egypt, geological sampling on the Galapagos Islands or an ethnographic study on the protest movement in Belarus without being there.
However, social distancing and other COVID-safe measures have made field-based data collection practically impossible – especially for scholars whose research is tied to other countries. But even those who work closer to home have been constrained by lockdown measures.
Researchers have had to put their studies on hold where they could, or scrap them entirely, when they couldn’t be delayed. Many research projects have been lost as a result, and cannot simply be picked up again in a year or two.
This is especially problematic for doctoral candidates, for some of whom the pandemic could spell the end of their dissertation projects. It is also tough for early career researchers, many of whom were already working under difficult conditions due to the instability of academic employment.
Many will be forced to reorient their projects toward other kinds of questions, data and methods. Transforming a scientific project in progress is a mammoth task for a young researcher with little experience and limited funding.
The limitations have affected research productivity across the board, but female scientists have seen the worst of it. As in many sectors, they have been more severely impacted than male colleagues by nursery and school closures, and need more direct support from supervisors and funders as a result.
The scientific community is exploring new data collection methods and tools, like ethnography for online communities instead of ethnography on the ground, or online interviews and focus group discussions to avoid in-person meetings and travel to the field site.
However, the pandemic has also resulted in heightened control of information – whether online or through partners on the ground. Even before the pandemic, scientists studying issues including environmental pollution, inequality, protest movements or human rights violations routinely had trouble accessing field sites. This was due to authorities or companies who had an interest in stopping research on such critical issues.
Now, pandemic-related travel and visa restrictions are being used by governments to restrict access for independent researchers. The case of the WHO research team tasked with investigating the roots of COVID-19 in Wuhan and its recent trouble to gain access to China serves as a warning example.
It also shows that visa or travel restrictions can serve as a pretext for preventing research that clashes with the viewpoints of local or national authorities. And this could get worse. There is the fear that the pandemic will be used as an excuse to deny researchers access to regions that are, for instance, heavily polluted or agitated by political protests.
This has consequences reaching far beyond scientific efforts to increase human knowledge. Information gained through field research regularly informs political debate and decision-making. The current near-total halt on fieldwork will therefore negatively affect debate around development, security and foreign policy.
Fewer researchers looking into issues as sensitive as human rights violations, for instance, means even less scrutiny in place than before COVID-19. And there wasn’t much anyway. This is of particular concern when it comes to the global response to COVID-19 itself. Any efforts will be less effective if data collection on the ground is hindered as governments seek to control the narrative around the pandemic.
Flexibility and Support
Scholars who rely on fieldwork urgently need greater flexibility and more support. Supervisors and funders should allow their research staff considerable leeway – and all the time necessary – to refocus their projects. Experienced scholars should provide support to more junior scientists to do so, as well as lobby for additional funding or necessary contract extensions.
The pandemic is set to continue to hamper most forms of fieldwork. For the next few years, universities will likely be expected to discourage or even ban research trips to certain areas, depending on travel warnings, new mutations and infection rates.
There was already a growing trend, especially in areas affected by conflict such as Darfur and Mali, for university administrations and review boards to frame field-based research as a security concern. Consequently, for several years already, fieldwork missions have incurred increasingly complex admin and clearance protocols to insure against risks and liability. This is likely to continue or even get worse.
Universities and new disciplinary standards are pushing for greater transparency in fieldwork-based data collection efforts. But administrators and editors need to make sure that any new disciplinary or regulatory standards do not become another hurdle for field researchers. Instead they should work toward making even difficult research projects both possible and safe for scholars. Fieldwork has always been fraught with risk, but it remains indispensable for scientific progress.
This commentary was originally published in The Conversation on May 11, 2021.
A Perfect Shitstorm: Scientists in the Pandemic
A Perfect Shitstorm: Scientists in the Pandemic
by Janika Spannagel
The COVID-19 pandemic’s most visible impacts on academia and academic freedom include mobility restrictions, enhanced opportunities for digital surveillance and prolonged emergency measures. However, especially in democracies, we should brace ourselves for some indirect and more far-reaching effects on academic life: even more divided and polarized societies, and decreased trust in science.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of scientific evidence in shaping our daily lives has become more visible than ever before. For months, the latest research results have filled headlines and provided the basis of drastic political interventions. As the pandemic unfolded on the public stage, scientists were attempting to make sense of their findings in real time, creating a formidable breeding ground for distrust and conspiracy theories. While science skepticism and denialism are far from new phenomena (see tobacco research in the 1980s and 1990s, or climate research in recent years), the pandemic has ushered in an unprecedented wave of public hostility toward science and exacerbated the potential consequences for academic freedom.
At first, the Coronavirus crisis actually brought about an increase in the public’s faith in scientific evidence. In May 2020, the Times Higher Education (THE) published an article entitled “Public trust in science ‘soars following pandemic’,” citing two surveys from the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany. In an April 2020 poll conducted in the UK, 64 percent of respondents indicated that the pandemic made them more likely to listen to expert advice from qualified scientists. Also in April 2020, the Wissenschaftsbarometer, a German survey that regularly polls the public about their trust in science, found that 73 percent of respondents said they “fully” or “mostly” trusted science and research – up from around 50 percent in previous years. The THE article attributed this public trust to Germany’s successful science communication in the early phase of the pandemic, most prominently through a popular NDR podcast series with virologist Christian Drosten, whose research group developed the first PCR test against the novel Coronavirus.
However, as the COVID crisis raged on, the data began to tell a different story. First, when comparing the available surveys over time, we find that trust in both science and scientists decreased again as the pandemic continued. In Wissenschaftsbarometer’s subsequent editions in May and November 2020, only 66 and 60 percent of respondents respectively still indicated trust in science. The Eurobarometer, a regular poll run by the European Commission, found a similar slight decrease in respondents’ trust in scientists, national health authorities and the WHO between their April/May 2020 and June 2020 surveys. One of the causes of this decrease may be that the “messiness” of science, which is usually confined to debates in academic papers, played out in real time on the public stage. The controversies and changing advice on issues like mask mandates were often confusing and difficult to comprehend for lay audiences.
A second important observation is that trust in science is not evenly distributed across society, and is often divided along party lines. In Germany, Wissenschaftsbarometer’s polls reveal that trust in science decreased most dramatically among respondents who identified with the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany’s right-wing populist party. For these respondents, their trust in science dropped from 45 and 63 percent in April and May 2020 to only 25 percent in November 2020. AfD representatives kept unusually quiet during the first phase of the pandemic, but increasingly dabbled in misinformation and conspiracy theories as the party began to associate with the COVID-19 denialist Querdenker movement. Although the Querdenker movement appeals to a broad demographic – including many former Green party voters – the AfD is the only major German party that has officially endorsed the movement and is thought to benefit from it politically.
US polling data also suggests that COVID-19 has reinforced a preexisting partisan divide on science. The pandemic further increased Democrat-leaning people’s trust toward scientists – from 43 percent in 2019 to 52 percent in April 2020 – whereas Republican-leaning respondents’ trust in scientists stagnated at 27 percent during the same period. Before and during the pandemic, then-US President Donald Trump played a key role in undermining trust in scientific evidence by defying expert advice, spreading misinformation and attacking researchers and their institutions. Today, the US’ partisan divide on COVID-19 vaccines is not only high – it is growing.
The trust divide on science has not only become quantitatively more prominent: public positions on scientific evidence have also hardened. While critical feedback on scientific studies – including from a lay audience – is legitimate and should be encouraged, it is a different story when scientists are deliberately attacked in an effort to discredit or silence them. For scholars like Drosten who became science celebrities overnight, these lines have been crossed many times over. As protests against pandemic measures erupted across Germany, scientists increasingly became the targets of harassment by private citizens. Virologist Melanie Brinkmann described the scores of hate mail she received in early 2021 after calling for more effective closures to curb the virus’ spread. “That is when I first became scared,” Brinkmann said in an interview with Der Spiegel – and she is not alone. Virologists and other scientists in many countries have reported extensive online harassment, including tens of thousands of hateful messages sent to individual experts over the last year, many of which included death threats.
Hate mail, and sometimes even physical violence, are problems that gender, climate and extremism researchers have faced for years. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the troubling phenomenon has reached new corners of academia: mathematicians, virologists and medical scientists who had previously been spared from controversy – unless they were visibly connected to abortion research or animal experiments – have now become targets of public hate campaigns. Even so, there still remains both a gendered and racial element to the extent and types of hate mail that pandemic researchers receive.
In an increasingly toxic atmosphere, hate-filled attacks are coming from more sides than just pandemic denialists and anti-lockdown protestors. Swedish epidemiologist Jonas Ludvigsson received an onslaught of intimidating social media comments and hate mail because of his research on COVID-19 in children and his findings’ support for the Swedish government’s decision to keep schools open. He reported that the threats caused him to lose both his sleep and “appetite” for working on the topic, leading him to quit conducting COVID-19 research altogether. In response to Ludvigsson’s case, Sweden’s Minister for Higher Education and Research Matilda Ernkrans expressed support for a proposed amendment to the country’s higher education act that would strengthen academic freedom in the face of online hate. She noted that such measures were more important than ever, as the problem for academics on both sides of the pandemic debate had escalated and several employees of the Swedish public health agency were under police protection. “This is not a new phenomenon, but we have seen an increase of threats against academics related to research on the Coronavirus. When people are silenced, it is a threat against the freedom of speech and our democracy,” Ernkrans told the British medical journal BJM.
Attacks like these pose a serious threat to academic freedom. There is an immediate and observable risk that scientists will retreat from public engagement out of fear of retaliation. What is more, targeted scholars can suffer mental health problems, face severe consequences to their reputations and may – like Ludvigsson – lose the curiosity that drives their scientific discoveries. After witnessing such incidents, other researchers may well avoid working on controversial topics altogether out of fear of becoming the targets of fierce ‘shitstorms’, smear campaigns and even death threats. This atmosphere of anxiety and self-censorship jeopardizes the free and open environment needed for academic research and teaching to thrive.
When comparing data on the levels of academic freedom and political polarization in democratic countries (see Fig. 1), an interesting pattern emerges: where polarization is low, academic freedom is generally high; however, in places where polarization is high, the state of academic freedom is less clear. Both measurements are part of the V-Dem Institute’s large social science dataset, which draws on multiple expert assessments for each country and aggregates them into key indicators. The academic freedom measurement is based on five indicators: the freedom to research and teach, to exchange and disseminate results, to express oneself on political issues, as well as university autonomy and campus integrity. To measure polarization, experts are asked to what extent the society is “polarized into antagonistic political camps” – meaning whether supporters of opposing political ideologies generally interact in a friendly (low polarization) or hostile (high polarization) manner.
Figure 1: Political Polarization and Academic Freedom in Democracies
If we look at the timelines of individual countries where political polarization has been on the rise (such as Brazil, Poland and Mexico), we find that a decline in academic freedom levels usually follows several years of increasing polarization. These distributions alone are not evidence of a causal link, which would require further research. However, in light of the trends outlined above, there is likely a connection between the level of political polarization, the pervasiveness of distrust in science and challenges to academic freedom. Under certain circumstances, this trifecta can have real consequences for the freedom of science in those societies. However, in some countries like the US, academic freedom remains high despite trends toward political polarization. If we accept that there is a link between polarization and academic freedom, what can explain this difference?
First, we need to distinguish between the different kinds of attacks on academic freedom that can emerge from increased political polarization. These include the above-mentioned hate campaigns against particular scholars, which – if systematic – can threaten the freedom of the academic system as a whole; and the erosion of institutional protections for academic freedom by those in positions of power.
Polarization does not automatically lead to widespread personal attacks against academics so long as science itself is not the main bone of contention, which has been historically rare. However, the pandemic may have changed that. While some research areas like gender studies, migration and climate research have been a thorn in the side of conservative and conspiracy movements for decades, public controversies over scientific evidence have reached new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the worst case scenario, these attacks may signal where the discourse is headed in the future. In the best case, however, the realization that no field of research is safe from vilification could provide a long overdue wake-up call to better protect academics from hate speech. This recognition could trigger meaningful changes in academia, such as the appointment of trained staff at universities to moderate, filter and examine online comments for hate speech against scientific personnel and the generation of more substantial and systematic institutional support for individuals after attacks occur.
Political polarization may play a similar role in institutional-level assaults on academic freedom. Democratic societies – particularly those where universities rely on public funding – depend on citizens’ belief in the benefits of science and the necessity of autonomous research institutions. When a segment of the population – even if only a loud minority – casts doubt on scientific evidence altogether, it can confuse legitimate academic debates and slowly erode vital trust in scientific integrity and academic institutions. In the German Wissenschaftsbarometer’s November 2020 poll, 42 percent of respondents who identified with the AfD “fully” agreed with the statement that “scientists do not tell us everything they know about the Coronavirus” – which is not entirely surprising from a supporter base in which conspiracy theories thrive. However, when examining all poll responses, an unsettling 40 percent of respondents either “fully” or “partially” agreed with the statement. Without the trust of the public, the very foundation of the academic system is in jeopardy: universities are left exposed to those populists who are all too eager to suppress academic freedom and declare a war on facts for their own political gains.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has showcased what can happen when science skepticism and opportunism are in the seat of power. In these situations, strong institutions and longstanding traditions of academic freedom and university autonomy may be crucial factors in determining whether academia initially withstands erosion efforts. According to the Academic Freedom Index, US President Donald Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office did not significantly undermine academic freedom in the United States – or at least, not yet. Even where institutions are strong, there is no guarantee that they will remain robust in the face of ever-growing polarization if scientists do not hold the public’s trust.
In many ways, scientists’ presence in news reporting and social media during the pandemic was a textbook example of confidence-building measures. Researchers were at the front and center of the public debate, explaining the unfolding situation in terms that a lay audience could understand, highlighting the central relevance of science in finding solutions to COVID-19, and also illustrating that scientists were equally affected by the problems they researched. These efforts helped to bridge the often-perceived divide between scientists and the public, and had – as suggested by the polls above – positive effects on people’s trust in academia.
However, in other areas, COVID-19 outreach efforts were less conducive to building trust – or were downright detrimental. The pandemic created a high pressure, emotional environment that even scientific experts could often not escape. For example, virologist Drosten conceded that it was a mistake to announce the result of his team’s study on viral loads in children in a very condensed form on Twitter, as “many saw this as a provocation.” Actions like these have contributed to further polarization in an already heated atmosphere around the pandemic. Similarly, the academic debates that play out in the media often adopt an adversarial tone not normally found in scientific discourse. What is more: some science journalists knowingly contribute to a lurid ‘heroes and villains’ narrative by pitting scholars with differing positions against each other rather than portraying them for they are: scientists trying to make sense of an extremely volatile situation who come to different conclusions.
Science communication during the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored a point made in a Nature piece more than two decades ago: a key component of trustworthiness in science is transparency about its limitations. To promote trust in today’s public engagement on COVID-19, scholars should openly acknowledge when they are crossing the line between communicating science and promoting specific policy choices. Otherwise, they risk undercutting the public’s trust in scientists as pursuers of an objective truth and instead position experts as “smart promoters of their own interests in a media-driven marketplace.” This is a dangerous road to travel in a time when societies, threatened by global warming and future pandemics, lean more than ever on scientific evidence – and thus on the free and autonomous academic institutions that produce it.
Pitfalls Between Science, Politics and Public Debate: Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic
Pitfalls Between Science, Politics and Public Debate: Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic
by Thorsten Benner
In early July 2021, Armin Laschet, the German conservative party’s candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany, found himself in a political firestorm. During a parliamentary debate on the role of a council of experts on the COVID-19 pandemic that had advised Laschet in his role as prime minister of North-Rhine Westphalia, he had stated: “I rarely if ever agree with the AfD. But today you said a sentence that is true. If somebody comes and says ‘science’ says this and that, one is well advised to question what the agenda behind this is. Because science always has minority opinions.” Laschet warned of reducing scientific discussions to “instrumentalization for political purposes” – and was heavily criticized for this statement. However, his critics did not just focus on Laschet’s ill-advised support for a speaker of the far-right AfD party. They also accused him of an anti-scientific attitude, and of legitimizing questionable minority opinions.
Given the magnitude of both the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, the extent and manner in which politicians rely on science to inform policymaking has become an ever more central – and contested – issue. The pandemic in particular has exposed many typical pitfalls that lurk in the triangular relationship between science, politics and public debate. Scientists, policymakers and the media can and should learn lessons from this on how policymakers and the public can best draw on scientific expertise. And in doing so, it is worth taking a closer look at one particular case, namely that of an informal group of scientists (consisting of economists, sociologists and China researchers) that was formed by State Secretary Markus Kerber at the German Ministry of the Interior (BMI). Within four days, from March 19 to 22, 2020, this group wrote a paper entitled “How We Get COVID-19 Under Control” – a paper with a fascinating and highly peculiar genesis and reception.
In the paper, the experts outline three scenarios for the spread of the novel coronavirus, including the expected death toll: the “worst case” (with an estimated one million deaths in Germany in 2020), the “stretch” scenario (220,000 deaths), and “hammer and dance” (12,000 deaths). The advisors also propose a large number of political recommendations for action to avoid the worst case scenario. Among other ideas, they call for subordinating data protection in favor of health protection concerns and argued that “the use of big data and location tracking is inevitable.” Much of the paper addresses how to successfully secure public consent for restrictive measures.
As the introduction points out, the key to getting the public onboard is to emphasize the worst case scenario: “To mobilize society’s capacity for endurance, concealing the worst case scenario is not an option.” Accordingly, the paper goes into great detail about how to “shock” the public into consenting to temporary restrictions on their freedom:
“To achieve the desired shock effect, the concrete effects of the contagion on human society must be made clear: 1) Many seriously ill people are brought to the hospital by their relatives, but are turned away and die agonizingly at home, gasping for air. Suffocation, or not getting enough air, is a primal fear for every human being. As is the situation in which nothing can be done to help families whose lives are in danger. The pictures from Italy are disturbing. 2) ‘Children will hardly suffer from the epidemic’: False. Children will easily become infected even with curfew restrictions in place, e.g., from the neighbor’s children. If they then infect their parents and one of them dies at home in agony, and the children feel that they are to blame because, for example, they forgot to wash their hands after playing, this is the worst thing a child could ever experience.”
The text was initially classified, but as early as the end of March, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported using information from a “confidential strategy paper.” The website FragDenStaat eventually published the paper on April 1, 2020, after which Germany’s Interior Ministry also posted the full text online.
After its publication, opposition parties in the Bundestag asked a lot of questions about the origins of the paper. In its answers, the Interior Ministry described its own role as “purely coordinating and editorial (preparation of a summary)” and claimed that “the development of the paper arose from a professional dialogue between the BMI and various social scientists, and was initiated by the scientists.”
More than a year later, the expert paper is still making waves. At the beginning of February 2021, Welt am Sonntag published its findings on the genesis of the document, which were based on insights gained from e‑mail correspondences between the researchers and BMI State Secretary Markus Kerber. These messages were obtained by a Berlin lawyer by way of a freedom of information request. Journalists Anette Dowideit and Alexander Nabert write:
“During those four days, Kerber and other high-ranking ministry officials meticulously followed the researchers’ work and dictated a clear course of action. Records shows that there were telephone conferences between the BMI and the researchers at short intervals while they worked on their model and the resulting recommendations.”
And they conclude: “Almost 200 pages of e‑mails prove that the researchers, at least in this case, acted by no means as independently as scientists and the German government have consistently claimed since the beginning of the pandemic – but instead worked toward a fixed result predetermined by politicians.” In doing so, science becomes “the extended arm of politics.” In response, Dietmar Bartsch, parliamentary group leader of Germany’s left party, criticized: “When science gives up its independence, credibility suffers. But trust and credibility are key to strengthening acceptance for measures in a crisis.”
At the end of February, Welt am Sonntag published another article dealing with Otto Kölbl, a member of the Interior Ministry’s ad hoc task force. He authored the passages on “shock effect” in the draft paper, leading to the special interest in his background. Kölbl, a 52-year-old German scholar, is both a language examiner for German and a doctoral student in German studies at the University of Lausanne. The institution stopped Kölbl from using the university’s official e‑mail address for his publications related to the COVID-19 pandemic. When State Secretary Kerber sent an e‑mail to the responsible dean at the University of Lausanne in support of Kölbl’s role as an advisor to the Interior Ministry, the university initially found the message “not plausible,” as they could not believe a senior German government official would take an interest in Kölbl’s opinions on the pandemic. They emphasized that Kölbl’s activities related to COVID-19 had “no connection whatsoever” to his work as a language examiner for the university.
On his Twitter profile, Kölbl continues to tout himself as a member of the currently inactive BMI Coronavirus task force. He is, as made clear by his public statements, a Mao fan as well as an ardent defender of the Chinese party-state and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) repression tactics. For Andreas Rosenfelder, WELT’s head of feature pages, the report on Kölbl “puts the German government’s course concerning pandemic policy in a new light and is required reading for anyone who wonders how the authoritarian element found its way into a liberal society.”
The accusations put forward in the two Welt articles cannot both be true at the same time. Either CPC fan and paper co-author Otto Kölbl convinced Germany’s Interior Ministry to adopt repressive measures during the pandemic that are inspired by China’s policies – or the researchers delivered a commissioned work according to the ministry’s political guidelines.
On closer examination, the idea that Kölbl influenced the German government’s direction toward “authoritarian elements” can quickly be dismissed. The preferences of State Secretary Kerber and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer were clear early on in the pandemic. Seehofer in particular pushed for tough measures as early as February 2000, as journalist Robin Alexander details in his book Machtverfall. Both State Secretary Kerber and Interior Minister Seehofer have survived threatening – even life-threatening – viral illnesses in recent years. This fact may have contributed to their early preference for decisive pandemic containment, reported outlets like ZEIT. As a comparison, in the early weeks of the pandemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel still accepted that everyone would eventually be infected with COVID-19, and that the task was to simply slow the wave so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed.
As Alexander further details in his book (p. 215), it was Seehofer who directed Kerber to seek out scientific support in favor of drawing a tougher line on COVID-19 restrictions. A four-hour meeting on March 11, 2020 with virologists Lothar Wieler and Christian Drosten – at the time the most important scientific advisors of Chancellor Merkel and Health Minister Jens Spahn – had left Seehofer deeply dissatisfied. As Alexander writes, Seehofer “decided to no longer rely on the virologists advising Merkel and Spahn.” To this end, Kerber sought out support and additional ideas for tough policy from the German academic community. During this process, he became aware of Kölbl through a paper on lessons from China’s Coronavirus response in Wuhan that he wrote together with Bonn-based China researcher Maximilian Mayer – one of the current heads of the #NoCovid movement. Kölbl and Mayer argued that “there is no alternative to containment of COVID-19.”
Undoubtedly, Kerber made a political mistake by not checking Kölbl’s background further before appointing him to the BMI expert panel – especially after the University of Lausanne so clearly distanced itself from the association. A person with such abhorrent political views on the CPC should not be appointed to a public German task force. However, it would be wrong to assume that Kerber in any way sympathizes with Kölbl’s views on the CPC. The state secretary stands out among Germany’s top officials as somebody who is extremely critical of the role and influence of the Chinese party-state and who advocates for Germany to adopt a robust China policy. For this reason, it would be absurd to assume that Kerber shares any of Kölbl’s views on China. It is much more likely that Kölbl’s positions on the CPC were unknown to the BMI at the time of his appointment to the task force.
What about the second accusation that scientists let themselves be controlled by Kerber and his ministry – in other words, that the researchers provided arguments for a “politically determined result” and thus undermined their scientific independence? Certainly, Kerber only appointed experts (notably, there were no female researchers in the group) whose positions he tended to share. Without question, Kerber wanted to gather arguments and proposals in favor of tough restrictions, and hoped to use the scientists’ paper to convince the rest of the German government of the same. That is hardly surprising – policymakers often choose their advisers based on whether the latter fundamentally agrees with their own beliefs. And they use the findings to further their position in the political debate within the government or in public.
Scientific advisors are not necessarily compromised by their awareness that their advice is sought to enable or legitimize political action. They can still use their advisory work to suggest proposals that they believe will bring about political and social improvements, or simply help better inform decision-makers. However, it is crucial to keep one basic fact in mind: in most cases, these experts are asked to provide specific recommendations for political action. These suggestions may be based on scientific research and expertise, but in most cases, they go well beyond that. Not all political recommendations for action can, for example, be scientifically substantiated in terms of their effectiveness. And even where the advice is backed by science evidence, there always remains a normative element that surrounds political action – whether that is about what the goal should be or what trade-offs we should make vis-à-vis other priorities.
Of course, this is not a new phenomenon – think, for example, of natural scientists who vehemently oppose nuclear weapons. A nuclear physicist who advocates for Germany to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons does not do so solely based on their scientific expertise. Normative beliefs and values play a central role.
Further, many of the questions that researchers are asked by politicians and journalists are aimed at answers containing normative valuations – and therefore go far beyond objective facts and established research findings. The “shock effect” central to the recent BMI paper written is just one example.
In heated political and social debates, the researchers who make public recommendations or act as advisors to decision-makers will inevitably be caught in the crossfire of criticism. Often, these advisers become themselves political targets, which can put them in an uncomfortable position. However, it would be a serious loss for the quality of public debates and political decision-making if researchers were deterred by this pressure and instead retreated to the ivory tower.
There are some important lessons to be learned from the controversy surrounding the BMI’s Corona Advisory Group – specifically, about how scientists, policymakers and journalists can strike the difficult balance between science, politics and the public to benefit all sides.
First, attempting to disqualify others through ad hominem attacks is not a useful tactic. Two Der Spiegel editors did so rabidly in an interview with Berlin virologist Christian Drosten, in which they argued, “in the past year, more damage has probably been done by experts who repeatedly argued against scientifically based measures – for example, Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit and Hendrik Streeck – than by corona deniers.” Such an outlandish accusation camouflaged as a question should not have any place in quality journalism.
The fact that the leadership of Der Spiegel publicly defended the two editors’ comments undermines the credibility of science journalism. Equally counterproductive, however, was the public attack by virologist Schmidt-Chanasit against his fellow scientist Maximilian Mayer, in which he ideologically placed Mayer next to his Mao-worshipping co-author Kölbl in order to question the credibility of the #NoCovid approach.
It also did not help that Christian Drosten, one of the most influential experts in the COVID-19 pandemic, referred to a statement co-signed by Schmidt-Chanasit and Bonn-based virologist Hendrik Streeck an example of “pseudo-expertise.” Drosten also claimed that the phrase “learning to live with the virus” – a term often used by Streeck – falls in the realm of “science denial.”
Second: All pandemic-related actors – in science, politics and the public – should establish maximum possible transparency. There are good reasons not to publish all of the details when scientists advise politicians, including for confidentiality. However, such valid reasons hardly existed in the case of the BMI’s Coronavirus task force: it is unlikely that the researchers handled secret government information. And when the internal report from a group of experts advising politicians is first classified as “confidential”, but a short time later made available to individual journalists to selectively report on, it undermines the credibility of all those involved – and is also serves as grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists.
To avoid this situation, the BMI should have proactively published the report on its website. It also did not help that the BMI downplayed its role in the genesis of the paper in its response to parliamentary inquiries – the e‑mail correspondence between those involved, which has since been made public, suggests that the ministry took a very active role in shaping the work of the task force.
Third, roles should be clearly distributed. Scientists give recommendations, but politicians decide on the course of action – and should not hide behind science when making uncomfortable decisions. For example, it was extremely counterproductive for Berlin Mayor Michael Müller to argue, as justification for extending contact restrictions in January 2021, that “without exception” all of the experts consulted had confirmed that the restrictions were the right choice. The fact is: there is no unanimous position in the scientific community on this political decision. Instead of validating his decision, Müller’s statement rather reveals the selective choice of his interlocutors from the scientific community.
When politicians suggest the uniformity of scientific opinion to legitimize uncomfortable decisions, the credibility of both science and politics suffer. As sociologist Alexander Bogner put it in his book, The Epistemization of the Political: “a policy that sees itself – thanks to its agreement with science – as without alternatives provokes a policy of alternative facts.” (page 121)
This formulation is somewhat exaggerated. But relying on the claim that “there is no alternative” supposedly based on science may well help to fuel anti-scientific protest movements. Swiss historian Caspar Hirschi underscores this danger in an essay: “Populists use expertocratic distortion to paint a doomed picture of expert rule, expertocrats use the populist one to shield expert testimony from democratic discussion.” As an antidote, Hirschi offers the sound advice that “democracy is strongest when political decisions are based as much as possible on scientific expertise, and legitimized with it as little as possible.”
Fourth, scientists should refrain from claiming scientific absolutes when making policy recommendations. For example, virologist and #NoCovid advocate Melanie Brinkmann often presents her beliefs as scientifically uncontroversial and classifies scientists with other opinions as an irrelevant minority. In addition, experts who stressed the strong seasonal effects on the spread of the Coronavirus were long regarded as holding a fringe position, only to be proven right by recent studies. Denying the plurality of the spectrum of scientific opinion can further undermine trust in science. That seems to have been the point Laschet also wanted to make with his somewhat ill-fated intervention in early July.
Sociologist Bogner aptly warns against the illusion of “purely knowledge driven politics.” Such a notion, he claims, is “based on the mistaken assumption that there are always ‘right’ or true answers to political disputes.” But, as Bogner goes on to write, that is not the case: “Even if we have reliable figures on the infectiousness of a virus or on the extent of global warming, those numbers contain no blueprint for political action.”
Especially in times of crisis, scientific evidence can provide an important impetus for political debates about the “right” course forward. As shown in the current debates on the Coronavirus pandemic, such societal discussions function best when they are conducted with transparency, openness to different positions and a clear division of roles between politics and science.
Incidentally, this is also the best way to defend academic freedom and harness its power for debates in an open society.
This commentary was originally published in German by Cicero Magazin on May 05, 2021.