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Why the wrangling over academic freedom?

September 14, 2008

I teach a research methods class.  It’s early in the term and right now we’re talking more broadly about research as a social process before we get down to the nuts and bolts of how to go about doing solid research.  An essential principle in this broader discussion is academic freedom.  To give a concrete example of why academic freedom is important and how our efforts to develop knowledge through research can be co-opted by powerful interests, I’ve turned to the rather disconcerting story of a university/corporate partnership between the University of Toronto and ERCO Worldwide.  These partners conducted a drinking water experiment in Wiarton, Ontario, in 2000 that raises serious concerns about the extent to which the integrity of academic research and the ethical standards that govern such research are being compromised through public/private partnerships (read more about the Wiarton experiment here in “Hung out to Dry”).

And if one concrete example isn’t enough to convince that the wrangling over academic freedom is justified, sadly the folks at the University of Toronto student newspaper, The Varsity, have been able to compile a list.   And that’s just one university’s experience with this PPP push.

Ensuring integrity in research and innovation for the public good will no doubt require some serious wrangling for academic freedom in the times ahead… so let’s all put on our best wrangling shoes.

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