Free to Think: Attacks on Scholars, Scientists threaten Societies Everywhere

On September 26, 2019, a Turkish court ruled that the publication of a series of newspaper articles about pollution constituted a criminal act. The articles’ author, a scholar of public health named Bülent Şık, had been dismissed from his position at Akdeniz University three years earlier by presidential decree. Continuing his scientific work despite his dismissal, Dr. Şık published several pieces in the popular daily newspaper Cumhuriyet in 2018 that disclosed the findings of an earlier state-commissioned study in which he and other scientists had linked high rates of cancer in Turkey’s Erdine Province to toxic pollution in the region. For this work, he was convicted of “disclosing official secrets” and sentenced to fifteen months in prison.  

Dr. Şık’s story illustrates something all too many scientists know from experience — that independent scientific inquiry can be perceived as a challenge to the interests of those in power. Scholars anywhere, including scientists, can find themselves under attack for a variety of reasons ranging from the content of their research to their roles as public intellectuals.

Scholars at Risk’s latest report, Free to Think 2019, shows that Dr. Şık is part of a broader, global phenomenon. The report analyzes 324 attacks on higher education communities in 56 countries between September 1, 2018 and August 31, 2019, and identifies key trends including violent attacks, wrongful imprisonments, and restrictions on travel that impact scientists and scholars everywhere. It also provides a detailed analysis of national-level pressures on higher education space in India, Turkey, China, Sudan, and Brazil.  

Scientists figure prominently in Free to Think. In Iran, Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian scholar of disaster medicine, remains in prison on national security charges, while biologist and conservationist Niloufar Bayani faces a potential death sentence on similar charges related to her research on Asiatic cheetahs; in China, Tashpolat Tiyip, a Uyghur geographer and former head of Xinjiang University, has been sentenced to death for “separatism”; and in Sudan, geneticist Ibrahim Muntaser’s role at the forefront of his country’s pro-democracy movement led to his detention and imprisonment without charge between February and April 2019.  

These attacks threaten us all by undermining scientific progress and eroding an essential, global space where academics, students, and the public at large can come together to understand and solve the complex problems that are affecting our increasingly interconnected world. They challenge everybody’s freedom to ask difficult questions and share ideas. 

Given these high stakes, Free to Think demands urgent action from governments, higher education leaders, and civil society. The report provides steps for diverse stakeholders — including the global higher education community, scientific associations, students, and staff — to take to protect scholars and defend academic and scientific freedom. Governments must increase protections for scholars; higher education institutions should consider offering temporary positions of academic refuge to endangered scholars; and scientific societies should consider discussing attacks on scholarly communities at annual and regional meetings and forming committees to respond. As members of the global scientific and academic community, it is our responsibility to ensure these stakeholders take action to increase protections for scholars, science, and academic freedom. 

Read the report and the recommendations today. 

By Ian Graham
Program Associate for Advocacy, Scholars at Risk 

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