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Scientific freedom is the idea of freedom (in the sense of Freedom of thought and Freedom of the press) applied to natural science, in particular the practices of scientific research and discourse, mainly by publication. Scientific freedom is promoted by many organizations of scientists, and is the subject of article 15 ¶ 3 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Defence of scientific freedom[edit]

Michael Polanyi argued that academic freedom was a fundamental necessity for the production of true knowledge.

Although the notion of scientific freedom has a long implicit history, the idea was first clearly formulated in response to the encroachments of the totalitarian state on science for the furtherance of its own goals. For instance, in the Soviet Union, scientific research was brought under strict political control in the 1930s. A number of research areas were declared "bourgeois pseudoscience" and forbidden, notably genetics.[1] (see "Lysenkoism"). The trend toward subjugating science to the interests of the state also had proponents in the West, including the influential Marxist, John Desmond Bernal, who published The Social Function of Science in 1939.

In contrast to this approach, Michael Polanyi argued that a structure of liberty is essential for the advancement of science - that the freedom to pursue science for its own sake is a prerequisite for the production of knowledge through peer review and the scientific method.[2]

In 1936, as a consequence of an invitation to give lectures for the Ministry of Heavy Industry in the USSR, Polanyi met Bukharin, who told him that in socialist societies all scientific research is directed to accord with the needs of the latest Five Year Plan. Demands in Britain for centrally planned scientific research, led Polanyi, together with John Baker, to found the influential Society for Freedom in Science.[3] The Society promoted a liberal conception of science as free enquiry against the instrumental view that science should exist primarily to serve the needs of society.[4]

In a series of articles, re-published in The Contempt of Freedom (1940) and The Logic of Liberty (1951), Polanyi claimed that co-operation amongst scientists is analogous to the way in which agents co-ordinate themselves within a free market. Just as consumers in a free market determine the value of products, science is a spontaneous order that arises as a consequence of open debate amongst specialists. Science can therefore only flourish when scientists have the liberty to pursue truth as an end in itself:

"[S]cientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment, are in fact co-operating as members of a closely knit organization."

"Such self-co-ordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about."

"Any attempt to organize the group ... under a single authority would eliminate their independent initiatives, and thus reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the centre. It would, in effect, paralyse their co-operation."

See also[edit]

Awards and associations:


  1. ^ Glass, Bentley (May 1962). "Scientists in Politics". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 18 (5): 3. 
  2. ^ Michael Polanyi (1958). Personal Knowledge. ISBN 0-7734-9150-3. 
  3. ^ William McGucken (1978). "On Freedom and Planning in Science: The Society for Freedom in Science 1940–1946". Minerva 16 (1): 42–72. doi:10.1007/BF01102181. 
  4. ^ William McGucken, 1978. 'On Freedom and Planning in Science: The Society for Freedom in Science 1940--1946', Minerva, 16, pp. 42--72.

Further reading[edit]

  • David B. Resnik (1998). The Ethics of Science. Routledge. pp. 54–55. ISBN 9780415166980. 
  • Kenneth F. Schaffner (1982). "Biomedical Knowledge: Progress and Priorities". In William B. Bondeson. New Knowledge in the Biomedical Sciences. Springer. pp. 133–134. ISBN 978-90-277-1319-3. 
  • J. T. Edsall (1975). "Scientific Freedom and Responsibility: Report of the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility". Science 188 (4189): 687–93 [689]. doi:10.1126/science.11643270. 
  • W. P. Metzger (Spring 1978). "Academic Freedom and Scientific Freedom". Daedalus 107 (2): 93–114. 
  • Kristin Sharon Shrader-Frechette (1994). Ethics of Scientific Research. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780847679409. 

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