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.

Euphemisms, Dysphemisms, and Playing Politics in Science Policy

It’s interesting to read Representative Lamar Smith’s statement on his circulating a draft bill to “improve accountability” at NSF.

Smith sees himself as ensuring accountability by “adding a layer” to NSF’s Merit Review Process, while also preserving that process (the direct quote of his characterization is that the bill “maintains the current peer review process and improves on it by adding a layer of accountability.”)

Others, however, see him as impinging on the integrity of the Merit Review Process — or even starting down the road to dismantling it.

I partially agree with one point that Smith makes in his statement about the matter. It will be a shame if this turns into a politicized debate, with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. This issue is too important to devolve into such petty politics.

I also agree that those of us who receive NSF funding should be accountable to Congress and the taxpayers who fund our research. But I think NSF’s recently revised Merit Review Process should be given a real chance to work before Congress intervenes in the way Smith is proposing.

4 ways open access enhances academic freedom | Impact of Social Sciences

There could be a conflict between a requirement to publish in open access journals and academic freedom.

4 ways open access enhances academic freedom | Impact of Social Sciences.

What sense of freedom — or autonomy — is operative here?

Autonomy and accountability — old and new thinking


Academics have tended to view autonomy as freedom from constraint by the state. We want to be able to go wherever our thoughts lead us, without ‘outside’ interference. This interpretation of autonomy as freedom from constraint is a negative definition, appealing to what is absent. It says, ‘Hands off!’

Politicians have tended to view accountability only in economic terms — that is, accountability has been reduced to accounting and conceived narrowly as something like return on investment (ROI).

Under such ‘old thinking’, autonomy is opposed to accountability, since accountability conceived as demonstrable ROI puts constraints on the autonomy of researchers conceived as freedom from such demands.


Autonomy means self-legislation, rather than freedom from constraint. Under this ‘new thinking’ on autonomy, the point is not for academics to be free from all constraint (the negative definition rooted in old thinking), but rather for academics to give themselves whatever constraints they are subject to.

Accountability means being able to give an account, in the Socratic sense of the term. This is by no means limited to a notion of ROI, though such may be included in the account one is expected to give.

Under this ‘new thinking’ on autonomy and accountability, the accountability demand is expressed as the formal demand that one give an account. There is no reduction of that account to economic concepts. One is free to offer whatever justification one sees fit. In other words, one is able to exercise one’s autonomy to respond to the generic accountability demand: account for yourself! Under this ‘new thinking’, then, accountability and autonomy are compatible.

Someone may be quick to point out that these are not really new definitions of the terms. So much the better!

Lawmaker blasts colleague over perceived intrusion into social science funding | Inside Higher Ed

VERY interesting!

Lawmaker blasts colleague over perceived intrusion into social science funding | Inside Higher Ed.