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Science Friction: Patterns, Causes and Effects of Academic Freedom Contestations

Principal Investigator:

External research collaborators:

Sep 01, 2021 — Jan 31, 2025

Academic freedom, both as an individual right and in the form of institutional autonomy, is under pressure in many countries across the world, as the Academic Freedom Index shows. Examples of attacks include the closure of institutions, funding cuts to specific research programs, prohibitions of certain teaching subjects, or the harassment of academics over their research and public appearances. Some of these attacks are accompanied by contestations of academic freedom, when its validity or application as a guiding norm for scientific research and teaching is challenged.

“Academic freedom” is understood in this project as an umbrella concept that includes the freedom to research and teach in higher education institutions, the freedom of scientific exchange and dissemination, the institutional autonomy of universities, the integrity of places of research and learning, and academics’ freedom of expression (e.g., UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel 1997).

Research Interest

In a first step, the project seeks to better understand academic freedom as a global and regional norm and its relationship to the liberal script. The second phase of the project will focus on academic freedom contestations. By mapping incidents, actors, and modes of such contestations, the project takes stock of current efforts to undermine academic freedom norms or certain aspects of them. The project team further aims to examine possible causes for the emergence of contestations and explore what kind of consequences they may have.

Research Approach

To analyse, assess and explain contestations of academic freedom around the world, the project combines legal and normative perspectives with comparative empirical research. After examining academic freedom’s emergence, spread and evolution as a global and regional norm, the project takes a closer look at the individual dynamics and causes of contestation, as well as legal and political strategies of resistance.

On a theoretical level, the project brings together the disciplinary perspectives of international relations and comparative politics with international and comparative constitutional law. Empirically, the project combines large- and small-N studies as well as legal analyses, to examine the content of academic freedom as a liberal norm and examine patterns in its justification and contestation. Various country studies will contribute to a more in-depth understanding of individual actors, causes, and strategies of academic freedom contestations, responses, and possible consequences.

Research Question

1) Identifying the core content and justifications of the liberal norm of academic freedom

• Is there a universal understanding of academic freedom as a norm and how is it justified?

• Which varieties of the norm of academic freedom exist today? To what extent are they within the boundaries of the liberal script?

2) Mapping patterns of contestations of the liberal norm of academic freedom

• How is academic freedom contested, and how do different forms of contestations relate to each other?

• What normative sources and arguments do contestants of academic freedom employ?

• Is there a script or playbook for the contestation and eventual suppression of academic freedom?

• What is the relationship between the contestation of academic freedom and that of other aspects of the liberal script?

3) Explaining contestations of the liberal norm of academic freedom

• Why is academic freedom contested by authoritarian, illiberal or liberal actors, what are their goals?

• To what extent does the hostility towards science/scientific evidence drive contestations of academic freedom?

• When and how do alternative and competing scripts for organizing academic life and scientific research (such as China’s) affect the emergence and diffusion of contestations?

4) Discerning the consequences of contestations of the norm of liberal academic freedom

• Which strategies of resistance do defenders of the liberal norm of academic freedom develop in response to contestations?

• What are the consequences of contestations as well as the resistance against it for academic freedom as a liberal international norm?

Relation to the Liberal Script

Academic freedom has become embedded in the liberal script, as a norm intrinsic to the pursuit of enlightenment, individual self-determination and scientific and social progress. At the same time, as higher education grapples with demands for economic viability, greater inclusivity, and democratic legitimacy, academic freedom is also at the core of many tensions inherent in the liberal script.


Roberts Lyer, K., Saliba, I. & Spannagel, J. 2022: University Autonomy Decline - Causes, Responses, and Implications for Academic Freedom, Abingdon: Routledge.