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For our 500th issue, we focus on academic freedom under threat

Research Europe was founded 500 issues ago on the principle of standing up for the researchers who form our core readership—a free voice, with links to national governments and European institutions, but staunchly independent. The first ever editorial, back in 1996, put this in stark terms: “Our allegiance is entirely to our readers.”  

Today, there are academics for whom that notion of independence has a particularly powerful resonance—those who, as a direct result of the political backdrop to their work, face serious threats to their academic freedom and even their lives. So, in this special anniversary issue, we look at this most fundamental, but often under-discussed, topic.  

The threat is real, and growing. As we explore in this article, academics have been caught up in the global unrest which has led up to 70 million people to be displaced through conflict, violence and persecution. We tell the stories of academics from Syria and Yemen, who fled their home countries to continue their work in safety.  

These are stories of persecution at its most dramatic. But within Europe’s borders, too, there is rising populism and growing distrust of ‘experts’. German MEP Christian Ehler has warned of echoes of the rise of Nazism in the situation in Hungary, where self-labelled “illiberal” prime minister Viktor Orbán’s government favours research that strengthens national identity.  

That trajectory provides an additional and alarming undercurrent to policy changes—deeply disturbing in their own right—which are forcing the Central European University (CEU) to move its foreign-accredited courses from Budapest to Vienna. And in Turkey, as we explore on page 12, advocacy group Scholars at Risk claims more than 1,200 university staff and students have been detained since the start of 2016. 

Academics, and any advocates of academic research, must not turn a blind eye. And in an era when Europe’s research elite are pushing ever-closer collaboration, there is a practical necessity to stand up for the rights of other researchers, too. 

Last week in the UK, CEU rector Michael Ignatieff called out Western governments for being “remarkably weak” in defending academic freedom in light of the situation at the CEU. He added that the “all-absorbing question of Brexit” had meant Britain has been “absent from any European debate about democratic freedom”. Given the immense pressures on national politicians, it is not necessary to imagine threats to academic freedom flying below the radar—it is already happening. 

This is why we are giving a voice to those in most danger of theirs being taken away, and raising awareness of the kinds of steps other academics, institutions and governments can take to help them. 

Academics are, of course, just one section of a huge population whose livelihoods, and lives, are tragically at risk from oppressive regimes. But the academic community as a whole is in a unique position to help them. By doing so, you can help give a brighter future to these individuals; and also, by enabling the continuation of their work, to the communities they have come from, and to which they will hopefully, one day, have the chance to return. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe