Engine Room column: Academic freedom, responsible research, and democracy

What do we mean when we talk about academic freedom? It can be freedom from strict requirements or value-based restraints of a funder, for example, or freedom to perform research without obligatory innovations. Academic and artistic freedom are a key aspect of Kone Foundation's new strategy which will be published in April. In this column, Kalle Korhonen, Director or Research Funding, provides a preview of this multifaceted topic in his latest column.
Photo: Kristaps Grundsteins / Unsplash

Academic freedom means at least three things: freedom to perform research without obligatory innovations, freedom from value-based restraints, and freedom from the overly strict requirements of a funder or a research organisation. One must occasionally defend academic freedom, such as when research results spur public criticism.

A recent case at the University of Turku in Finland involved accusations against some researchers in psychology and the way the results were communicated. It was claimed that the conclusions drawn from the results could put people’s lives at risk (text in Finnish). The university responded, in my view rather prudently, by saying that the fundamental values of a university include academic freedom and that the university trusts the expertise of its academics and the ability of science to correct itself (in Finnish). Kone Foundation rarely publishes notices about research results. But if the foundation were criticised because of its research grantees’ results, it would defend academic freedom in a similar fashion, even if the Foundation was troubled by the findings.

I wrote in this blog in 2020 about how academic conflicts can enter the non-academic spheres (in Finnish), and I mentioned the collective volume Tieteen vapaus & tutkijan sananvapaus (Academic Freedom and the Freedom of Speech of Researchers), edited by Esa Väliverronen and Kai Ekholm and published in 2020. In a chapter on academic freedom and institutional epistemology, Petri Ylikoski and Samuli Reijula suggest that we should discuss codes of conduct for academic quarrels, because otherwise free academic discourse can harm the epistemic aims of research and its societal credibility. In the same volume, Johanna Vuorelma focuses on certain academic discussions in the media and cites Chloë Taylor, who is worried about the situation in which scholars with a precarious position cannot say what they think. Others comment on virtually anything on social media, even when they have not thought about the matter carefully.

Admittedly, such problems seem “first world”, especially when we know how difficult it is for academics to work in some countries. Indeed, it has been necessary to establish the network Scholars at Risk, which protects scholars and their freedom to think, question and share ideas. Kone Foundation, too, has supported scholars at risk by funding the Institute of Advanced Social Research of the University of Tampere.

Be this as it may, it was necessary to discuss the Turku University case I mentioned previously in non-academic media, too, because the way in which it was communicated could have had an impact on health. Responsibility, an essential dimension of freedom, has to be brought into play, as do questions of research ethics. In Finland, the concept of responsible research comprises research ethics, research popularisation, the classification of academic publications, and open science. The coordinating organisation in the field is the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies. There are many proponents of responsible research on the European level, but here I’ll mention the Responsible Research and Innovation Toolkit, in the development of which some major foundations participated.

Kone Foundation is a responsible research funder: it funds academic outreach, such as popularisation, and supports the ethical principles and the openness of the academic community. In Finland, the experts active in the responsible research network have created recommendations for research organisations on open access publishing, researcher evaluation and open scholarship. I participated, as a representative of private research funders, in the work on Good Practices in Researcher Evaluation.

In all, it is now easier to get a fuller picture of what responsible research in Finland looks like. However, it would be important that what first comes to mind when one thinks about responsible research would be a democratic society built on a plurality of academic voices. As Deborah R. Coen recently wrote, with a reference to the events of the 1920’s and 1930’s, for important academic figures such as the physicist Erwin Schrödinger and the literary scholar Walter Benjamin, “the way to ensure the integrity of science was to enrich and deepen its connection to the public, not to sever it”. They saw that there must be two-way communication between academics and the public in order to work against authoritarian and anti-democratic trends, which again enjoy increasing popularity, even in democracies.

At Kone Foundation, the defence of global democracy starts in the Finnish context. Through its research funding, Kone Foundation has generally sought to increase the understanding of humans, society and the environment among the general public. But a specific initiative called the Forum for Environmental Information, funded by Kone Foundation and the Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation, addresses the proverbial chasms between academics and the decision-makers in a democratic system. Recently, the Forum participated in the reform of the Nature Protection Law under the Finnish Ministry of the Environment by facilitating the work of a multidisciplinary group of researchers. Moreover, some other initiatives concerning democracy are currently being considered by the foundation.


Kone Foundation’s new strategy will be published in April 2021.


Kalle Korhonen

The author is Kone Foundation's Director of Research Funding.