One of the threads at Open Parachute has had a discussion about the concept of ‘academic freedom’ – the idea that scientists should be free to state their opinions about those areas of science where they have expertise. (This concept isn’t exclusive to scientists, either, but applies to researchers in all disciplines.) It’s probably most apparent in the universities, which in NZ are expected to provide research, teaching (ie research-based teaching, where the people doing the research are also teaching their students about that research & how it fits into the existing body of knowledge) – & to be the critics & conscience of society.
This freedom may be constrained, to a greater or lesser degree, by intellectual property (IP) issues – if you’ve contracted to do a bit of research for another organisation, they aren’t going to be pleased if you start talking about the results in public without their permission. And similarly, no sensible scientist is going to let the world know about the outcome of an important new piece of research via press release: they’ll publish it first in a reputable journal & then the media release will follow. But outside those constraints, researchers can & do talk – with their students, with the media, with interested community groups – about topics within their areas of expertise. (We can & do talk about topics outside our own fields as well – but with no more authority than the next interested amateur.!)
But in the US, the phrase ‘academic freedom’ is being used (I should say, mis-used) in some states to suggest that science teachers should have the freedom to teach, or not teach, particular parts of the science standards… Oh, OK, to teach about the manufactured controversies** surrounding evolution, & about ‘alternatives’ to evolution as an explanation for life’s diversity. This is both a mis-use of the phrase & a yet another, fairly blatant, attempt to get around the restrictions on teaching creationism in the classroom. First Oklahoma, & now Mississippi – it would seem that the legislators responsible have learned very little from the experiences of the Dover Board of Education, in Pennsylvania. (There’s an excellent video about the Dover case available on-line.) It’ll be interesting to see how these latest efforts pan out.
** As far as the scientific community is concerned, there is no controversy. In 2009, 150 years since the publication of On the origin of species, & 200 years since Darwin was born, evolution remains the only scientific explanation we have for the diversity of living things that live, & have lived, on this planet.