Canaries in the Mines of Democracy – On the status of science in Russia, Turkey, Hungary and Poland

Canaries used to play an important role in mining. When the dangerous but odorless gas carbon monoxide got releasedin the underground, canaries were affected fastest. Already at a concentration of 0.3% and after a time of about two and a half minutes the birds fell of their pole dead. The miners were thus warned and had sufficient time to get to safety.

Sciencecan be seen as the canaries of democracy. Where science is loathed or ignored, its protagonists are suffering from poor conditions, are restricted in their work or even personally persecuted, when political leaders declare truths that are supposed to stand above scientific scrutiny, then the open society, its social, humanistic and economic achievements, are in acute danger. Authoritarian rulers target particularly scientists, because as Albert Einstein already knew: „Nothing in the world is as feared as much the influence of people with an independent mind“. Just as the scientists quatheir professional ethos have to declare themselves free of pre-defined claims of absolute truth, in an open society this equally applies to the legitimization of power and decision-making by its political leaders. After all, like scientific research, the process of political decision-making is in a permanent repair mode, in which its protagonists have to repeatedly question and justify themselves. In both, the path towards real progress leads via the permanent correction of wrong decisions, respectively theories. Not without irony, it was precisely this perpetual error-fixing and constant muddling with imperfectness that has brought mankind the unprecedented increase in knowledge that defines the modern dynamics of progress and in turn led to hitherto unknown social growth, prosperity, and ever better living conditions. All this is simply incompatible with autocratic and repressive forms of social rule.

So it is the scientists (next to the artists) who are the first to turn their backs on a place where opinions or the freedom of press, civil or voting rights, the free flow of ideas and creativity are curtailed. This was particularly evident in National Socialist Germany. German universities lost almost a third of their teaching staff in the 1930s, including Nobel laureates such as Albert Einstein, the physicistGustav Hertz or the chemist Fritz Haber. During the first third of the 20th century Göttingen had been the world center of mathematics. Ittook the Nazis only two years to completely destroy that status. The wave of emigration of German scientists made German universities and scientific institutions irretrievably lose their academic leadership in the world.

It is all the more frightening when the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Alexander Sergeyev, describes today’s state ofscience in his country as a „valley of death“. At the beginning of the 1990s, there were almost three times as many scientists in Russia as today.Meanwhile, the number of highly skilled Russian emigrants has increased to 44,000 per annum. Especially in the last few years, since the annexation of Crimea and the Putin regime’s intensifying repression of political dissenters, more and more scientists, and with those many of Russia’s brightest young minds, have emigrated to the West, asat home they cannot implement what is in their heads. That Russian-born physicists can succeed abroad, has shown among others Andrej Geim and Konstantin Nowosjelow from the University of Manchester, who in 2010 received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research on the nano-material graphene. When asked if he could imagine returning to Russia, Geim replied sarcastically: „Only after my rebirth.“

Also the Turkish canary has long fallen off itspole. Since the summer of 2016 and the alleged coup by the movement of Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, thousands of professors and lecturers have been suspended, universities have been closed, deans have been fired, and scientists have been deprived of travel permits and in many other ways constrained in their work. In short, for almost two years we have been experiencing a massive curtailment of academic freedom in Turkey. The Turkish government continues to stage waves of arrests among scientists. They are accused of being part of a terrorist organization, i.e. supporting Gülen. The mechanisms for legitimizing repressions have hardly changed since the 1933 Reichstag fire in Berlin.

Two more canary test cases are Hungary and Poland. In the former, many scientists, artists and intellectuals have already left the country. Others are likely to follow. Victor Orban’s fight against the Central European University in Budapest is just one example of his government’s repressive policy against independent science and education. This disheartening path Poland is now following as well. The most recent example for the inhibition of free academic speech in the birth country of Nicolaus Kopernikus, which especially concerns the historical and social sciences, is the new Holocaust law, which punishes anyone who accuses Poland as a nation of committed World War II crimes with hefty fines or imprisonment of up to three years. Many researchers believe that this law will have an intimidating effect on teaching, research and the media in Poland.

Academic freedom and creativity have always been the pillars of open and sustainably prospering societies. The reverse applies equally: The most successful scientific research takes place in open societies. The number of Nobel Prizes for scientific work from countries such as today’s Russia, Turkey, Hungary or Poland (or even China) can be counted with less than the fingers of one hand (though they were quite a few Nobel prize winners that were born in one of these countries). Independent research, fearless teaching and learning, open dialogue and the free flow of ideas not only serve scientific knowledge, but also overall social development and general prosperity. Russia, Turkey, Hungary and Poland are all well on the way towards repeating bitter past experiences. We can only hope that Putin, Erdogan, Orban and Kaczynski remember the historical lessons. If they continue their current policy of restraining, intimidating, harassing, or even arresting scientists (and other intellectuals), not only science in their countries will suffer, but also their societies as a whole, their economies, their prosperity and all their people. And if such a development leaves the West in different – or is even being fostered by it as by the Trump administration, its own future could turn out to be no less gloomy.


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