Freedom of Inquiry

Freedom of inquiry, the right to select and undertake a given line of research without censure or undue interference, lies at the core of academic freedom.

The UBC Senate Policy grants members of UBC the right "to pursue what seems to them as fruitful avenues of inquiry… unhindered by external or non-academic constraints." Other freedoms enjoyed by members of UBC—expression, association, or mobility—pertain to academic freedom but are also explicitly recognized by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The UBC Senate policy makes clear that it is the individual member who is granted the right to judge what counts as "fruitful avenues of inquiry." This means that there is no higher authority who, in principle, directs or dictates the choice of a research project. According to renowned scholar Arthur Lovejoy, "the principle of academic freedom is thus, from a purely economic point of view, a paradoxical one; it asserts that those who buy a certain service [i.e. the university hiring and funding researchers] may not (in the most important particular) prescribe the nature of the service to be rendered."(1) There are simple and straightforward reasons for this arrangement. Future knowledge cannot be prescribed since, by definition, it has yet to be found. Furthermore, academic researchers are presumed to be experts in their field. Interference from non-specialist or non-academic authorities is likely to adversely influence the outcomes, if only because those who interfere lack the expertise to judge the situation. There is thus everything to be gained by enabling the full exercise of  freedom of inquiry. This arrangement appeals not only to its efficiency—one less body to impose rules or restrictions—but also to the likelihood of improving the quality of the research.

Expanding the domain in which individuals might pursue their research also requires blocking or reducing the "external and non-academic constraints" noted in the UBC Senate policy. These include intrusions from colleagues, university administrators, religious institutions, political interest groups, government ministers, non-profit agencies, private corporations, or ordinary citizens. Insofar as academic research is directed at the expansion of objective knowledge, it seems preferable to reduce if not eliminate any interferences, particularly those with non-academic interests. There are, for example, strict guidelines that limit the power of donors to dictate the terms of the research and most certainly, to have a voice in the appointment of new faculty or staff members (see UBC Policy FM6: Fundraising and Acceptance of Donations). Similarly, while funding for research at UBC comes from a wide array of sources, both public and private, there are a number of policies in place to protect academic integrity, to govern intellectual property, to guide the procurement of patents and to oversee the acceptance of remuneration from external sources. See UBC Policy LR11: Inventions Policy; UBC Policy SC3: COI Policy; UBC Policy SC6: Scholarly Integrity Policy; and UBC Policy LR2: Research Policy.

To ensure that these policies are fully implemented, it is essential that the university as a whole be protected from undue influence. Since its inauguration, UBC has enjoyed considerable autonomy. The BC University Act of 1908 stipulated that UBC must be non-sectarian and non-political in principle, and granted it the right to self-govern. The revised Act of 1996 deems the university to have the independent action analogous to personhood—a body unto itself, so to speak. The Act also stipulates that a minister in the government of British Columbia "must not interfere in the exercise of powers conferred on a university… [such as] the formulation and adoption of academic policies and standards." It also mandates, subject to resources, that the university "provide instruction in all branches of knowledge," and "establish facilities for the pursuit of original research in all branches of knowledge."(2)

Researchers at UBC might be envisioned as standing at the frontier of knowledge, backed by one or more venerable disciplines that commit to core propositions and methods. Giving each individual the freedom to explore and roam without interference is likely to facilitate the advancement of knowledge and the discovery of new truths while shedding others. Moreover, academic freedom applies not only to the unrestricted pursuit of topics within an existing branch of knowledge, but also to the formation of new disciplines. Two hundred years ago, most universities offered degrees in just three subjects: medicine, law, and theology. The array of programs on offer today is overwhelming, many of which are less than sixty years old, for example computer science, environmental studies, or gender studies. Traditional sciences have spawned numerous hybrids such as astrophysics or biochemistry, and interdisciplinary collaborations are to be found across campus. Academic freedom thus enables an academic to retool and pursue or create new disciplines.

By contrast, such uninhibited inquiry, at least when funded or remunerated, rarely exists outside the university. The few exceptions, such as research laboratories under the auspices of a major corporation or so-called "think-tanks," are renowned for hiring PhDs and for simulating the campus culture. For the most part, however, employees in private firms, banks, government or non-profit agencies, even if hired specifically to undertake research, are typically constrained in their research choices and activities, and might risk legitimate dismissal for disobeying or disclosing findings that are antithetical to the beliefs or values of their employer.

This does not mean that, in contrast to researchers in the private sector, university professors do whatever they please. Notwithstanding serendipitous discoveries, x-rays for example, the advancement of knowledge is not without regulation, particularly by the researchers themselves. Academics are appointed and promoted in part because their conduct accords with professional protocols, such as accountability, impartiality, transparency, humility, and so forth. The right to academic freedom is grounded in academic integrity and thus limits the set of acceptable actions, much as the right to freedom of expression limits the set of permissible utterances or actions to those that do not break laws or result in direct harms.

Academic integrity is forged over time. While the primary mission of UBC is to educate and thus "foster global citizenship and advance a sustainable and just society," it educates some to enter the professoriate. This process—of professors training select students to become professors—is intended to advance knowledge and not simply to replicate and conserve a specific field. While deepening their knowledge on a given subject, each student also develops the capacity to judge for themselves what constitutes a fruitful line of inquiry and thus, potentially, to overturn the beliefs of their professors. If they remain on this trajectory, then after about fifteen years, they might enjoy the privilege of promotion to an Associate Professor with tenure, and thus greatly reduce the worry that their radical findings might result in dismissal. In fact, one primary motivation for the practice of granting tenure to professors is to reinforce freedom of inquiry. As Lovejoy observed, this expanded sphere of judgment is similar to a judge in the courtroom. Both the tenured professor and the judge have had their character scrutinized over many years, deemed to act with a high degree of integrity, and thus given considerable autonomy. 

Conversely, academic researchers, much like judges, are expected to respect the weight of tradition. Both groups wear ceremonial robes, at least at convocation in the case of professors, for a reason. Symbolic gestures aside, there is an inherent tendency of institutions and their members to uphold the status quo, to conserve traditions and respect the beliefs of the past.  Having invested many years of training in a specific discipline that commits to core principles and specific methods, researchers more often than not pursue problems as defined and recognized by their paradigm. Thomas S. Kuhn, a prominent philosopher of science, argued that the theoretical and methodological allegiances imbibed during one's education, if only because of the long period of investment, tend to be stultifying and, as a result, genuine paradigm shifts are relatively infrequent.(3) If there is even a grain of truth to Kuhn's position, then the implication is that research, particularly scientific research, is restricted by invisible chains.

Quite possibly, the most overriding constraint on research comes from one's own colleagues. Each scholar tends to hold very firm views about their field, about warranted methods and topics for investigation. It takes considerable courage to ignore the admonitions of those with whom one works, and thus to pursue lines of research that seem risky or radical. Yet our UBC Senate Policy acknowledges the importance of forging such independence and protecting a culture of respect for diverse points of view. To quote, each member must "recognize this fundamental principle [of academic freedom] and must share responsibility for supporting, safeguarding and preserving [it]." Moreover, the policy stipulates that "behaviour that obstructs free and full discussion, not only of ideas that are safe and accepted, but of those which may be unpopular or even abhorrent … cannot be tolerated."

The "discussion of ideas," however, is different from research, if only because talk is cheap, while ground-breaking research and its dissemination are costly and time-consuming. The majority of research at UBC, at least that which is published, is subject to the peer-review system, which necessarily rations the outcomes. Some periodicals have rejection rates that exceed 90 percent. Research at UBC is also restricted by environmental considerations, ethical adjudications, and perceived conflicts of interest. See UBC Policy SC4: Environmental Protection Policy, Research Ethics Boards at UBC, and UBC Policy SC3: COI Policy. Moreover, resources for research are not unlimited; most scholars need access to physical space, to libraries and computers. Above all, research is subject to budgetary constraints and financial accountability. Whether public or private in origin, the management of research funding comes with many regulations. UBC has a number of policies to govern the procurement of equipment and the sharing of data, methods, or other capabilities with third-party actors. See UBC Policy FM2: Purchasing Policy; and UBC Policy SC14: Information Systems Policy / Information Security Standards. All of the above serve to promote academic integrity, that in turn fosters a culture in which freedom of inquiry best thrives.

(1): Brief essay by Arthur Lovejoy in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, 1937

(2): British Columbia University Act of 1996, Articles 48 and 47 respectively

(3): The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1962