Why should we care about state-sanctioned attacks on academia by governments? Let me count the ways beginning with the argument that this battle of reason against populism is not simply about abstract knowledge. It is impacting on the lives and livelihood of millions of people around the world

At least ten academics either had visa problems or were denied visas when trying to attend an international conference in Liverpool run by the World Health Organization this month. Among them was Sabu Kochupurackal Ulahannan who researches nutrition and inequality in the tribal communities of Kerala in India. Mr Kochupurackal Ulahannan had been awarded a scholarship to attend the event which was partly funded by the UK government. He was denied a visa he says on the grounds of having an “insufficient balance” on his bank account. The UK’s Home Office does not comment on specific cases but told the Guardian newspaper “The onus is on the applicant to demonstrate that they satisfy the immigration rules. In addition to any support provided by a sponsor, decision-makers will take account of an applicant’s own personal and financial circumstances..’

This type of problem is a common occurrence at conferences in the UK, and elsewhere in the world, and reveals the growing tensions between the very different arenas of academia and government.

This has consequences that reach far beyond the academy. For example, the actions of the far-right ‘League’, and ‘Five Star’ movement coalition government in Italy are having consequences on the health of the nation. The government has postponed the introduction of a law to make parents provide proof of routine compulsory vaccinations when enrolling their children in nurseries or preschools. While research has conclusively discredited the suggestion of an association between vaccinations and autism, the government has done nothing to support the research and instead has fuelled anxiety among the general public.

Because of vaccine scepticism, and parents being hesitant to get their children vaccinated, Italy has seen a large increase in the number of cases of measles in recent years. Immunization rates have dropped to around 86% in 2016. Davide Barillari, a Five Star councillor for the region of Lazio recently defended the government’s position and posed the question on Facebook “When was it decided that science was more important than politics?… Politics comes before science.”

Five Star’s attitude towards science is that politicians do not need to accept what science concludes after in-depth research and medical trials. This is as worrying a development as the rise in measles itself because it represents a direct attack by a politician on science. The threat is not just to public health, but a challenge to reason.

Examples abound: In March 2017, a bill was submitted to the Hungarian Parliament to amend Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education, in a bid to regulate foreign-operating universities. This would impact on the Central European University from operating in Hungary. The requirement would mean the University would need to seek an agreement between the State of New York and the city of Budapest. This would also pressure on existing and new non-EU academic staff from applying for work permits, disadvantaging the CEU further because of their reliance on non-EU workers.

Returning to the UK, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill by the Government seeks to define new acts of terrorism in relation to the digital age. This would have implications for the work of academics because they could be penalised for merely browsing content that might discuss terrorism.

If governments win the fight, then the measles outbreak might only be the tip of the iceberg.

Dr Donald Nicolson is a former Health Services Researcher.  You can find him @the_mopster.

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1 Comment on "Science, Reason, and Populism"

  1. I have to say that I fail to see how an example of the Home Office enforcing a visa rule that is standard across the western world (and has been for many years) constitutes an attack on academia. A big fuss was created and many hissy fits were had, but only a mere 10 out of 2000 attendees were affected by UK immigration policy which suggests that the fault is more likely to lie at the door of the failed applicants. I do have some sympathy for Mr Ulahannan as he had a scholarship to fund his stay but as someone who has applied for visa’s and sometimes residency across numerous countries I can attest that immigration policy the world over is totally inflexible when it come to application of the rules.

    On the wider point, governments have always had a strange relationship with science, namely that they use it to justify a position when it supports and ignore/rubbish it when it doesn’t. ‘New’ Labour completely ignored advice given on drugs policy by David Nutt before finally sacking him when he chose to push his point. The Con/LibDem coalition chose to ignore evidence on badger culling and recently the EU choses to ignore a paper by it’s own joint research centre that suggested that bans on neonicotinoid pesticides in trial area’s had proved to have little effect on the bee population. The dangers of alcohol and smoking are well documented yet they are illegal virtually nowhere. Every government in the world is ignoring advice on climate change at present when you consider their half hearted efforts at cutting emissions. This has nothing to do with “populism”, a term I detest btw, and everything to do with having a need to take the public and/or your backers with you as a politician. In Italy, wrong as I think the government position on vaccinations is, it is about political opportunism rather than a vendetta agains science. We do not have compulsion in the UK despite a rise in measles cases and fall in MMR take up and there is a reason for that, our politicians know just how unpopular it would be. Not until significant harm was being caused could it safely introduce such a measure. It is I suppose one of the main drawbacks of democracy which while rightly making it difficult for the ruling class to make policy which harms people’s interests also makes it hard to introduce unpopular legislation which is actually in the best interests of the people.

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