We’re pleased to introduce readers to Alice Dreger, a historian of science and medicine at the Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program in Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Her new book is “Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science,” out this week from Penguin Press. Read to the end for a chance to win a free copy.
The good news: Policy makers and the public seem to be increasingly taking scientific research seriously. The bad news? People who don’t like researchers’ findings seem to be increasingly coming after researchers and their universities. And some of those people are powerful.
Technically, your university is supposed to protect your academic freedom. In my own university’s faculty handbook, academic freedom is the first topic discussed. But as I’ve learned from my own personal experiences, as well as from eight years studying the experiences of other researchers who have gotten into political hot water, your administration may not always have your back.
Economist Paul Frijters of the University of Queensland in Australia seems to have found this out the hard way. With the help of a graduate student and a team of undergraduates, Fritjers conducted a study on local public buses in which students of different ethnicities posed as patrons who didn’t have the proper fare. The study showed that bus drivers (of all races) are much more likely to let white and east Asian patrons ride for free than patrons who are Indian or black.
Brisbane Transport, which runs those buses, was not so happy with the widely publicized results, and apparently let the university know it. According to the Guardian, facing local political pressure, the public university proceeded to go after Frijters, leveling an ethics charge: He hadn’t asked the bus drivers or Brisbane Transport for their consent to the research. Of course, if he had, he wouldn’t have been able to obtain reliable results, since the drivers would have known their responses were being monitored. Eventually the university dropped its attempts to demote Frijters, but not before he spent $50,000 on his legal defense.
In the course of my research on scientists attacked for their findings, it became clear that trumped up ethics charges are one way critics and university administrations can “legitimately” try to suppress the academic freedom of researchers. Proper ethical behavior is, of course, absolutely critical; academic freedom requires academic responsibility. (In my book, I trace out a 30-year fetal drug experiment that is genuinely ethically problematic.) But in many cases, charges of allegedly improper ethical behavior made against controversial researchers turn out to hold little water.
I found this out after spending a year of research on each of two major controversies. The first involved a controversy over a book about male-to-female transgenderism by Northwestern psychology researcher J. Michael Bailey. Angry that Bailey suggested their transitions from male to female might be as much about erotic interests as gender identity, a group of supposedly-progressive transgender women accused him of all sorts of serious ethics violations. These included conducting human subjects research without approval from an institutional review board (IRB), practicing psychology without a license, and having sex with a research subject. The second occurred when a group of liberal anthropologists charged two major researchers, Napoleon Chagnon and the late James Neel, with engaging in genocide in South America in the 1960s. The group, part of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), was upset by Chagnon’s sociobiological claims about “human nature.” In both cases, the evidence did not support the charges, but Bailey and Chagnon, like Frijters, spent a great deal of resources defending themselves and nearly had their careers permanently ruined.
The political right is certainly not without its own attempts to suppress or muddle research it doesn’t like. As reported recently in the New York Times, the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors voted to dismantle an anti-poverty center run by the distinguished law professor Gene Nichol, who has been critical of local Republican leaders. The Center is widely considered highly productive, but its politics have run afoul of those with the ultimate purse strings. And in my book, I recount the story of Republican Tom DeLay leading a charge to condemn through an Act of Congress (!) a research paper on pedophilia that DeLay didn’t like. (The Democrats, afraid to look like they were supporting pedophilia, went along.)
This trend—of letting outside political forces decide for us the limits of academic freedom—is particularly troubling because it seems to be coming from all directions. The same kinds of approaches have been used by all political stripes: trumped up ethics charges, undermining of funding, and bad publicity campaigns that threaten university’s reputations.
To add to this troubling trend, university administrations are paying millions of dollars to establish and promote their university “brands,” so controversial research is apt to now be seen as too risky and “off brand.” For my part, I’ve been told by one university administrator — I think not in jest — that I am seriously “off brand.”
There are a few university administrations that still seem committed to making academic freedom a leading value, even though it is a distinctly difficult value to monetize (and is indeed one that may be a consistent money-loser). For instance, the University of Chicago recently issued a strong statement on academic freedom. But that effort, headed by University of Chicago law professor and former provost Geoffrey Stone, seems increasingly to be the exception rather than the rule.
What are we to do? Well, I believe we as university-based researchers should at least be quite concerned when academics have to worry about being “off-brand.” We should, I think, be pretty agitated when a university professor has to pay $50,000 to defend his academic freedom against his own public university. We should, I’m pretty sure, be disturbed en masse as academic researchers when one political party can essentially directly decide which research centers will be allowed to exist at a state university.
We may not live in an ivory tower. But maybe things are getting bad enough that it is time to start acting like we do. Otherwise, who is going to do the hard and risky research that our society needs?
Alice Dreger’s personal website is alicedreger.com, and her new book is out this week. Her publisher is giving away three free copies – to enter, click here to submit your information to Penguin Press. Winners will be randomly chosen after the deadline, March 30.