We must stand up for academic freedom against government restrictions

Martin Rees
WHEN academics extol “free wheeling” research, they risk being accused of an ivory tower arrogance that disregards their obligations to the public. But they should strongly counter such allegations.

Choices of research project are anything but frivolous: what is at stake is a big chunk of our lives, and our professional reputation. The traditional compact which attracts academic specialists to our universities is that, in return for their teaching, they can devote part of their time to research in fields of their own choice, and have reasonable prospects of the necessary support. This has manifestly paid off in places like Harvard, Berkeley, and Stanford – each an immense asset to the US. We must not jeopardise our local counterparts of these great institutions by putting this compact under threat in the UK.

The best university departments foster such an atmosphere: I am lucky to have spent many years in one, in Cambridge. But coffee-time conversations are increasingly about grants, the Research Excellence Framework, job security, and suchlike. Prospects of breakthroughs will plummet if such concerns prey unduly on the minds of even the very best young researchers.

The winners of the 2010 Nobel Physics Prize, Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov, are important exemplars. Working at Manchester University, they discovered that carbon atoms can form a lattice just one atom thick – a new material, graphene, with extraordinary strength and electrical properties, and the potential to trigger a transformative technology. Their clinching experiment involved a piece of Sellotape.

It was archetype “small science”. But it needed intellectual freedom, time and the supportive environment that their university provided. These two men also exemplified the mobility of academics. They were both Russians who came to this country via the Netherlands – in the 1990s. Today, visa restrictions might have discouraged them. We must nurture such people, in an environment where they feel free to take intellectual risks, and ensure that they continue to perceive the UK as a place where the best cutting-edge research can be done.

Two of the most valuable pieces of intellectual property to come from Oxford did not come from scientists or engineers – but from professors of renaissance literature and of Anglo Saxon. I refer of course to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien – whose works now, decades later, earn billions for the so-called creative industries. These two distinguished scholars – both, in style and attitudes, archetype old-style Oxford dons – would feel disaffected aliens in today’s world of line management and the audit culture. Their values were the traditional ones: commitment to an institution, to scholarship, and to learning for its own sake.

Lord Rees is the Astronomer Royal, a fellow of Trinity College and emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of University Diversity: Freedom, Excellence and Funding for a Global Future, published by the think tank Politeia.