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Academic freedom for sale

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Upholding intellectual freedom doesn’t have to mean tiptoeing around questionable ethical choices or iffy data.

Recently, the Globe and other publications reported that Willie Soon, a climate-change skeptic at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, had failed to tell some of the journals considering his work that some of it had been funded by fossil-fuel interests — a fact highly relevant to evaluating it. While Soon has benefited from the prestige conferred by the Harvard and Smithsonian names, the Center for Astrophysics has so far been gentle in handling what looks like an ethical lapse — partly for fear of interfering with Soon’s intellectual freedom.


In fact, such freedom is most vital for those who, like Soon, do research that rubs their colleagues the wrong way. But it doesn’t mean researchers should never have to answer for who funds them or how they conduct themselves. “Academic freedom” isn’t an all-purpose excuse, behind which anything goes. And for institutions, the term shouldn’t be bureaucratese for “looking the other way.”

Even some egregious cases of academic misconduct have prompted a surprisingly broad defensive reaction within the academy. When Harvard was looking into allegations that star psychology researcher Marc Hauser had manipulated data — allegations that it later deemed true — a long list of academics signed a letter bemoaning “the nature and scope of the investigatory process,” which, signatories believed, “impinges upon, and infringes upon, the freedom of science.” In multiple cases tracked by the website Retraction Watch, academic journals’ decisions to withdraw scientific papers have prompted complaints that intellectual freedom is being compromised.

On funding matters, the answer is easy: Transparency should be a given. As an arm of the US government, the Smithsonian is subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and Greenpeace and other environmental groups requested public records on where Soon’s research money came from. Among the sources not disclosed to journals was an arm of Southern Company, a utility that owns coal plants. Around the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, such connections were hardly a secret. Indeed, as is customary in many research facilities, a portion of the funding that Soon received helped defray the administrative overhead of the entire laboratory.


Yet in some labs, what’s expected of scholars — beyond bringing in research dollars — may not be entirely clear.

In an interview, Harvard-Smithsonian director Charles Alcock said the definition of academic freedom is “generally understood” at the center. “It’s part of our culture,” he said. “It’s something that we all learn in graduate school.” He also said Smithsonian policy directs researchers to behave in an ethical manner, but it’s not clear about requiring disclosure of funding sources. (Soon didn’t respond to my request for comment; I did receive an odd e-mail, signed by an associate of his, quibbling with the premise that government grants confer more credibility than funding from corporate interests.)

If nothing else, research centers and their scholars need a common understanding — and an explicit one — of the rights and responsibilities that come with academic freedom, and institutions should keep an eye on how their scholars represent themselves to peer-reviewed journals. Soon’s unusual case now becomes a personnel matter for Harvard-Smithsonian. But without better hygiene day in and day out, institutions will find themselves in no-win situation when controversies arise: Either they keep letting their names be connected with dubious research, or they risk making martyrs of scholars whose work legitimately comes under fire.



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Dante Ramos can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@danteramos.