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Do professors truly get to work on whatever they want, in research?

I just read a job description for a post-doc position; the job sounds extremely specialized, with no room to do anything else outside of that job requirement.

And generally professors are funded by external agencies to do pretty specific research.

Is there really academic freedom for professors in the United States?

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Typically, the prof wrote the project for which (s)he received the funding. This is how (s)he determines what to do research on. When a postdoc does not write her/his own funding proposal, then her/his freedom is severely limited.

  • 2
    Limited, yes. But severely limited? Although I've only worked in academia and not in industry, I find there may be relatively much freedom in how to carry out the research, and some topics are quite broadly formulated or interpreted. – gerrit Aug 17 '18 at 9:10
  • I agree with @gerrit. It may be "severely limited" compared to the level of freedom a tenured professor might have. But compare it with the freedom (or lack thereof) that employees enjoy outside academia. You have to go quite high up the food chain to reach a level where "do what you're told" isn't your entire job description. – user9646 Aug 17 '18 at 16:07
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While it is certainly true that the bulk of university research depends on external funding, and thus requires approval of the external funder, there are a number of ways in which a professor in the United States (and many other nations) can pursue research with almost complete freedom:

  • Most professors own salaries are supported (at least at a "9 month" level) on the basis of teaching, not from research grants. A research position, however, often teaches only 1-2 classes per semester, however, leaving significant time for the professor to spend on research, whether or not that research also has external support.
  • Some undergraduates are willing and able to work on research for course credit or even on a volunteer basis.
  • Graduate students and postdocs are sometimes supported on fellowships that put no constraint on the subject of their research.
  • Some institutions also allow professors to "bank" a portion of the research funds that they bring in, which may then be used later as unrestricted funds.
  • Early career professors often have startup funds and later career professors often have endowed chairs, both of which typically have no constraints on the research they can be used to conduct.
  • In extremely rare cases, a professor may get a "genius grant" or similar sort of external award that is a significant amount of unrestricted money.

The amount of resources available through such unrestricted routes is typically much smaller than if one can convince an external funder that one's work is worthy, but one can get quite a long way on preliminary work, proofs of concept, and small-scale experiments with rather small amounts of resources.

Combine this with the fact that there is a wide diversity of funders out there with different agendas and preferences, and one can see that academic freedom in research is very real indeed.

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    "Most professors own salaries are supported (at least at a "9 month" level) on the basis of teaching, not from research grants." In some departments. There are entire schools with primarily soft money appointments. – Fomite Aug 17 '18 at 19:49
  • At my university a "research .* professor" has no teaching responsibilities whatsoever. – Azor Ahai Aug 17 '18 at 22:11
  • Additionally, 1-2 classes would be a very normal load in a quarter system ... how many do profs teach on a semester system? – Azor Ahai Aug 17 '18 at 22:12
  • @Fomite Absolutely --- medical schools especially, if I remember correctly. Across all disciplines, however, I believe the majority in the US are supported as I describe. – jakebeal Aug 18 '18 at 12:27
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    @AzorAhai Research professors are by far the minority in the US system, and are indeed on soft money. The teaching loads for other professors vary greatly: professors who are expected to produce significant research tend to be on that lower end, while primarily undergraduate institutions may have a full 4 class load for their faculty. – jakebeal Aug 18 '18 at 12:29
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Academic freedom isn't just about choosing what you work on (which was covered by the other answers). It also means that a researcher doesn't face consequences for what they research or for their conclusions, and the same for professors and what they teach (within the limits imposed by professional ethics, of course). In theory at least, if the conclusions of a study do not please whatever politician is effectively in charge (the minister for higher education or equivalent, or even above) or whatever private overseer, then the researcher/professor should not face consequences for this.

Think about for example an economics professor researching and teaching ideas that are not part of the orthodoxy, or an environmental scientist that reaches some conclusions regarding climate change that may displease an unfortunate fringe of politicians, or the same environmental scientist who finds that the actions of a powerful oil company (with friends in the government) are harmful, or a medical researcher who finds that some drug is inefficient / harmful, etc.

If lobbies had the power to influence politicians/private overseers who could fire professors and researchers at will, do you think there would be many studies who find that criticize the products/actions of big private companies? Of course, as you have noticed, funding for such research can be cut, which is a problem in itself.

  • Note that it doesn't need to be an "environmental scientist" who might come under the thumb of an industry. A mathematician or creative writing instructor could, by speaking out on issues of public concern in a public place draw the ire of the powerful who might try to retaliate agains them through the university. Academic freedom protects all your speech, not just that for which you are trained. There have been instances in which this has been abused, of course, but on balance it has been a good thing over the centuries. Think Copernicus. – Buffy Aug 20 '18 at 20:47
  • @Buffy I don't know how it is in the US. In France, the law: Teachers and researchers enjoy complete independence and entire freedom of speech in their teaching and in their research activities, within the limits imposed by the principles of tolerance and objectivity, according to the university traditions and the provisions of the present [Code of Education]. I don't see why a mathematician would have any more right speaking out about the environment than any other private citizen. Some mathematicians are completely dumb in other areas. I don't see why they could use their position for that – user9646 Aug 21 '18 at 7:13
  • Because of the same pressure on the institution that you describe in your answer. Without strong traditions of academic freedom that pressure could be successful. In the US, the First Amendment protects speech from attack by government, but not private, action. Academic freedom goes beyond your narrow field. – Buffy Aug 21 '18 at 10:40
  • @Buffy Once again, I do not understand why e.g. a chemist should have more right than any other citizen to speak out on e.g. history. They're not an expert. But I realize that European conceptions of freedom of speech differ from the US. (Consider that in France, academics are civil servants. One of the foremost duty of a civil servant is the duty of réserve, meaning that you must be especially careful in what you say/write/... while exercising your functions, because you represent the State. Academic freedom is a big, but limited in scope, exception.) – user9646 Aug 21 '18 at 18:34
  • In fact, I believe that academics everywhere have a duty to be especially careful in their public communications, and clearly separate what constitutes their research findings or their teaching as an expert, and what constitutes their mere opinions. Because for good or worse, academics are viewed as trustworthy experts by the public, and it is not fair to use that to spread one's own personal propaganda. And when people abuse it on a large scale, we get to the point that the general public starts distrusting experts on everything, because they don't know what to believe anymore. – user9646 Aug 21 '18 at 18:40
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I think one standard use of the phrase "academic freedom" is to mean that the administration of the institution is not telling its academic employees what to research. At teaching-oriented schools, I think academic freedom often refers to not having your teaching methods and techniques dictated to you by the administration.

In my experience, this kind of academic freedom certainly exists and is very common (the default) in U.S. institutions.

There are natural checks in academically free environments. If you need research funding, you have to convince a funding source that your work is important. If your teaching is not good or you don't conduct yourself appropriately in the classroom, the institution will here about it (through student cimplaints or evaluations probably). One could certainly discuss whether having to obtain funding reduces academic freedom, but this is not the venue for that.

  • I think this is a good description. The way I think about it is that you can choose what to work on in the short term, and be judged based on the results in the long term - does it eventually result in valuable contributions to the research community? You could choose to work on squaring the circle, and you wouldn't be told to stop - but after a while, when it didn't result in publishable papers, there'd be negative consequences for your career. Same for teaching - you can choose your own methods, but if they don't work out, there'll eventually be pressure to do something else. – Nate Eldredge Aug 17 '18 at 16:15
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One additional thought: The funding agencies are usually consulting experts before they are setting up dedicated programms. Yes, you must be quite influential if you are asked about your opinion on futur research programms, but this adds additional freedom to the process (not for all, of course).

In th EU, there is even a process for how to define future research topics.

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