Academic freedom should not end at disciplinary boundaries

20 July 2021
Sir Keith Burnett FRS
Posted by Study Group

Most of my life has been lived as a teacher of physics. I have also done a decent amount of research, which qualified me to advise on areas within my own speciality. But I have always been someone who saw the value of scholarship across the board.

This is an instinct that grew in my discussions with my father. A cost and works accountant in the Rhondda coalmining village of Gilfach Goch, he was known for his skill at walking around the shop floor at Royal Worcester Industrial Ceramics and being able to see in the pattern of work the likely profit in the years ahead. But his love was poetry and art. He was a published poet of enormous range and depth of insight.

My father always encouraged me to learn, and I did. I learned about the creatures of the world, and about the chemicals of which they and it were made up. As time went on, I studied the atoms and molecules that make up those chemicals. But I always stayed aware and studied more widely than my specific speciality.

Later in my career as a scientist I was asked to help make decisions on what science should be funded, and I found that my interest across a range of different sciences was a blessing. I served on bodies that looked across the disciplines and thought about what facilities would be needed in the future.

Later, I was asked to make judgments about the funding and shape of education more widely. I realised that my genuine concern for a wide sweep of knowledge made it much easier for people to trust my judgment in matters that would affect their daily lives. They knew I was not by nature narrow, and this gave me a frame of reference by which I was able to follow their ideas, especially those that crossed disciplinary boundaries or that reached out beyond conventional academic practice to blend knowledge or drive impact.

These were rich and unmined seams. Sometimes my colleagues were even voyaging into areas no one had been before, learning as they went the tools of discovery they might need.

There is a thrill of wonder at what we only begin to understand. It is what young children and Nobel Laureates have in common. It is the desire to learn beyond categorisation. A desire Newton himself described when he said: “To myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Which brings me to my thought. The instinct to put people into boxes must be viewed with caution, especially by those of us whose life is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.

I now work with the Schmidt Science Fellows, whose explicit aim is to break down barriers between areas and to fund brilliant young scientists to look across borders, to explore and to learn, and in the process, bring new insights to the problems they want to solve.

Why do this? Because the world is not made up of disciplines: these are merely the various lenses through which we examine it. Sometimes they are adequate to fully comprehend reality but often they are not. To do that we may need to draw together a diverse team of expertise and perspectives. But we also need individuals capable of challenging their own thinking and asking what hasn’t been asked before.

The world demands this of us because it is, as the poet-priest Gerard Manley-Hopkins put it, “dappled... counter, original, spare, strange”. Scholarship grapples with ideas which another poet, Louis MacNeice, said could be “incorrigibly plural”. The great problems we face particularly have this character – from dark matter to climate change, the questions are complex and subtle. We must invent new techniques and perspectives to wrestle with understanding.

Our academic freedom must give us the right to roam without constraint, to pursue knowledge where it takes us and then to speak fearlessly whether or not others expect this of our area of “specialism”. And the protections of our academic freedom must similarly allow us to speak of what we find, openly and imaginatively.

England’s controversial Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which had its second reading earlier this week, suggests academic freedom only extends to academics’ “area of expertise”. But who will say how far I may wander off a previously trodden path in search of truth? Of what may I speak without fear of reprisal, especially if this runs counter to those in authority?

In a world that increasingly atomises and commodifies in crude ways, we need academic freedom to protect not only our freedom of speech as scholars but our freedom of thought. Our subject is in that sense held in common: the love of knowledge itself, as we stand on the shores of Newton’s great ocean.

More importantly, perhaps, the world needs us to have this liberty so that we can, in turn, share unforeseen, unexpected and precious truths with it. We need an open passport for voyages of discovery. There must be no legal narrowing of the special guarantee we give to scholars to be fearless in investigation, intrepid in scope and open in imagination.

This article was first published by The Times Higher Education. Sir Keith Burnett FRS is an eminent physicist and Chair of Study Group U.K.

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