Freedom and autonomy in the social sciences 


The freedom and autonomy of researchers in the social sciences comes under scrutiny in a book co-authored by CDU academic Carole Kayrooz.

Professor Kayrooz, the dean of Education, Health and Science, explores the vexed question of the influence of commercial interests on social science research in her new book Autonomy in Social Research.

With co-authors Gerlese Akerlind and Malcolm Tight, Professor Kayrooz has surveyed social science researchers in Australia and the UK to determine if they felt constrained in researching controversial social issues for fear that funding from commercial organisations might be withheld.

Her research turned up a mixed bag of reactions, as she details in the first chapter of the book.

Drawing on previous research, she found that some academics felt no constraints, while others felt that self-censorship came into play, and others believed there was a definite lack of freedom in researching awkward problems and issues.

She says some academics felt that commercial constraints led to ‘safe research’ and ‘declining quality’.

There were some who felt strongly that funding from commercial sources affected the choice of research topics, with some academics avoiding contentious or speculative research altogether.

‘Some have spoken of the inaccessibility of money to ask awkward and unsettling questions… and in a small number of cases, academics even describe outright interference in the publication of contentious results,’ she writes.

‘While the impacts upon academic freedom described by these social scientists are reminiscent of those described by physical and natural scientists, impacts more specific to the social sciences were also reported.

‘These include the active avoidance of externally funded research, in order to maintain academic freedom.’

Professor Kayrooz discovered that those who did seek grants and external funding spent so much time on their applications that there was little time left to engage in social debate, such as writing articles for newspapers.

‘It seems, though, that the various social science disciplines do not experience pressures upon academic freedom uniformly,’ she says.

Professor Kayrooz’s research has led to an invitation to deliver a paper on autonomy in social science research at UNESCO conference in Paris in late November.

The conference is entitled Universities as Centres of Research and Knowledge: An Endangered Species?

Professor Kayrooz will leave Charles Darwin University in February next year to take up a position as Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Canberra.