Scholars at Risk – ten years of protecting academic freedom

The Norwegian section of Scholars at Risk marks its 10 years anniversary. – The work of SAR should inspire us all to do more to protect academic freedom, Guro Lind says.

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Guro Elisabeth Lind, president of Forskerforbundet / The Norwegian Association of Researchers, wants to do more to protect academic freedom.

Scholars at Risk (SAR) is a worldwide network of academic institutions monitoring attacks on higher education, offering safe havens to academic human right activists, and promoting academic freedom and human rights. The Norwegian Section of SAR was launched in 2011. All Norwegian universities, as well as several public and private HEIs, are members. In addition, the Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions (UHR), SAIH, and Forskerforbundet / The Norwegian Association of Researchers (NAR) are associated members.

Guro Lind, president of NAR, is inspired by SARs work.

– The SAR model provides real protection for human rights activists under severe threat.  Between 20 and 30 scholars have been hosted by Norwegian institutions since the start of SAR-Norway in 2011. These are academics who could have faced brutal consequences without the assistance of SAR, Lind says.

She recently joined a panel discussion on the protection of academic freedom, hosted by SAR, where she addressed possible threats to academic freedom from a Norwegian perspective.

– Compared to most parts of the world, Norwegian researchers are extremely privileged. There are no violent attacks or political persecution against scholars here. But there are developments we should be aware of, even in democratic European countries, Lind says.

One of them, according to Lind, is the growing use of precarious work.

– The extensive use of temporary positions and precarious work is a main worry for us. Researchers with a safety net and decent working conditions are more likely to take risks, challenge established truths, and speak up against problematic policies or working conditions. This also accounts for external funding in general, with short time-horizon and sometimes with strings attached, Lind remarks. 

And even in Norway, politics can interfere with research.

– A well-known example is from 2016, when Minister of Fisheries Per Sandberg, received a lot of criticism when he said that the Institute of marine research must be a business-friendly institute, and share the ambitions the government have for the aquaculture industry. There is a tendency of increased political interference and steering of research priorities, that we should be aware of, according to Lind.

So what can be done? Lind wants improvements both at the institutions, and in the legislation.

– The protection of academic freedom should be strengthened both in the Universities Act and in the Constitution. The rights and predictability for those hired on external funding should be secured. Basic, public funding should be increased. The institutions should be even more concerned with safeguarding academic freedom and invite all employees and students to thorough conversations about the content and meaning of academic freedom. And finally, we should all continue to support the important work done by Scholars at Risk, Lind concludes.

The Terrence Karran Survey

In 2015, professor Terrence Karran conducted a survey among academics in higher education in Europe. The results were alarming.

  • More than 35 % agreed that their individual academic freedom had declined in recent years.
  • 60 % claimed that public respect for academics had declined over the decade.
  • 65 % agreed that applying for funding stopped them from choosing topics that their academic instincts told them were worthwhile.

(Artikkel i Forskerforum 9/2021)