Autonomy, negative and positive freedom, and broader impacts

I’ve been continuing to think about the topic I broached in a previous post. There, I described what I termed ‘old’ and ‘new’ ways of thinking about autonomy and accountability. Of course, my ‘new’ ways are not all that new.

Here I want to sketch very briefly some recent thoughts I’ve had as a result of teaching my class this past semester at UNT in ‘Science, Technology, and Society’, my recent attendance at the ‘Broader Impacts Infrastructure Summit‘ at the University of Missouri, and recent discussions with colleagues. I want to thank my students for forcing me to try to get my thoughts in enough order to be able to stand up in front of them and teach. I also want to thank Steve Fuller for turning me on to some new reading material and Bob Frodeman and Adam Briggle, with whom I tend to discuss everything.

I don’t want to blame any of them for these thoughts, of course. But I mention them, in part, to indicate ways in which my own thinking is influenced by these ‘non-research’ activities. In particular, my teaching this past semester has hardly been separable from my research. This notion that teaching and research can be — and should be — mutually reinforcing in this way is one of two main Humboldtian theses about the university. For short, let’s call it the integration of research and teaching (though I’m on record about my suspicion of the term ‘integration’).

The other main Humboldtian thesis about the university is that it should be autonomous from the state. This same notion was expressed in the post WWII era by Vannevar Bush, whose “Science — The Endless Frontier” forms much of the conceptual basis of science policy. In my previous post on autonomy and accountability, I argued that we needed to get past an account of freedom as freedom from constraint by the state. What I did not say in the last post is that this is precisely the account of freedom that both Humboldt and Bush share.

This notion of freedom is very much like what Isaiah Berlin describes as ‘negative freedom’. Under such a negative account of freedom, any interference on the part of the state with the sort of research that’s performed at universities would be an assault on freedom. I think this is the sort of freedom most academics believe in, whether they know it or not. The idea is that academics should be free from outside interference. Only free in this sense will they be allowed to roam wherever their curiosity would take them.

According to my ‘new’ account of autonomy, however, freedom means self-determination rather than freedom from restraint. This notion actually corresponds in many ways to what Berlin describes in the essay cited above as ‘positive liberty’. Under this conception of freedom, requirements such as the NSF’s Broader Impacts Merit Review Criterion need not curtail academic freedom, as long as they don’t take away the academic’s ability to self-legislate. Instead, such requirements could be seen under the rubric of ‘interference without domination’ as outlined by Philip Pettit in his account of Republicanism (thanks to Steve Fuller for that reference — have been trying to read some about Pettit and Republican political theory in the past day or two).

I am not quite comfortable with transferring ideas straight from political philosophy to the realm of knowledge policy. But I’m not worried here about making a mistake in the details. I think there’s something helpful in seeing things this way.

One more point that may seem unrelated — though it isn’t, I just won’t be able to make all the connections here. At the Broader Impacts Summit, it became clear that there were two ‘camps’ forming. Again, I’m going to speak loosely. One camp wanted to claim broader impacts as its area of expertise — let’s call them the BI-Experts, though I believe most of them would consider themselves experts in science education and outreach. What they were pushing, albeit in still-developing form, was to make broader impacts activities a side show to the real research. It would be a rigorous sideshow, mind you. But broader impacts activities ought to be the realm of BI-Experts, rather than scientists, who can’t tell outreach from a hole in the ground.

The other group — and interestingly, it tended to include former and current NSF program officers — had what I labeled a Humboldtian view of broader impacts. The idea was that intellectual merit and broader impacts should be integrated in the project (and perhaps in the person of the Principal Investigator). Without wanting to limit broader impacts to teaching, this view is consistent with the Humboldtian position on the integration of research and teaching.

However, the Humboldtian take on broader impacts actually depends on a positive notion of freedom. If one were to take a negative view of freedom (as I think Humboldt does), then one would be more inclined toward the BI-Expert approach. Why? The BI-Experts will run interference for the scientists, who will then be free to perform their research without having to be concerned with broader impacts.

3 thoughts on “Autonomy, negative and positive freedom, and broader impacts

  1. Pingback: ‘Pure hype of pure research helps no one’ says Sarewitz; what this says about freedom | jbrittholbrook

  2. Pingback: On British higher education’s Hayek appreciation club | Stian Westlake | Science | guardian.co.uk | jbrittholbrook

  3. Pingback: Nigel Warburton’s negative vision of what philosophy isn’t | jbrittholbrook

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