The case of the police withholding data from Dr Gilbert is a breach of academic freedom but not an isolated one, says TEU national president Dr Sandra Grey.
Grey says government departments are wary of damaging headlines and this has led them to clamp down on public commentary from scientists.
A survey last year by AUT’s Work Research Institute revealed that nearly two-fifths of academics say that their level of academic freedom is worse than when they started work.
While there are some limited legitimate reasons why some data cannot be public, the current presumption against releasing data without a struggle is creating a climate of silence.
Grey says this is a dangerous trend because it means, at times, ministers do not have the full information they need to make decisions.
“If we want strong public debate and good policy making, research results need to be public. Where public interest is at stake, an academic needs to release work publicly – no matter who funds the research.”
Grey advises researchers not to take contracts with strong gag clauses such as the one the police tried to impose on Dr Gilbert.
“Fear of having contracts cut or being blacklisted for our work can lead to researchers double-guessing themselves unconsciously.”
Grey says academics have a legal duty under the Education Act to act as “critic and conscience” of society.
“They cannot be our critic and conscience if public agencies are actively discouraging research that does not suit their public image.”