What is scientific freedom?

Scientific freedom refers in particular to the freedom to choose research topic, the freedom to ask questions, the freedom to choose materials and methods to find the answers, and freedom to publicly present hypotheses, results and reasoning, see e.g.

  • The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters (Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab), Forsknings- og ytringsfrihed på universiteterne (Annual Research Policy Meeting 2007), p. 5.
  • Section 3(3) of the University of Copenhagen’s former rules on good scientific practice (as adopted on 11 April 2005 and amended 1 September 2007).  The rules currently in force include no similar definition of scientific freedom.
  • See also the rules and regulations mentioned below.

Scientific freedom is part of the academic freedom,  and it involves, among other things, extensive freedom of expression for the individual researcher.

At the international level, this topic is discussed under the headings of “academic freedom”, ”scientific freedom” and ”research freedom”. A detailed account of the history, reasons and restrictions of scientific freedom is available in the Norwegian report on academic freedom NOU 2006:19 om akademisk frihet. See also Heine Andersen: Forskningsfrihed – ideal og virkelighed (2017).

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Justification of scientific freedom

Traditionally, the justification of scientific freedom is based on functionality: It is considered to be the most appropriate framework for the search for – and dissemination of – knowledge and understanding. Scientific freedom is also considered to be an essential prerequisite for research independence and legitimacy.

Scientific freedom is associated with freedom of thought and  freedom of expression and is recognised as a fundamental right in Article 13 of the  EU Charter of Fundamental Rights:

“The arts and sciences research shall be free of constraint. Academic freedom shall be respected.”

Scientific freedom is incorporated in the Danish University Act, see below. It is also referred to in the European Commission’s European Charter for Researchers.

Boundaries of scientific freedom

When defining the concept of scientific freedom, a distinction is made between the institutional scientific freedom which is linked to the research institution, and the individual scientific freedom, which is linked to the individual academic staff member. This is dicussed in more detail below.

The actual extent of scientific freedom is mainly determined by a mix of formal and informal rules, funding, management practices and institutional framework, cf. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Forsknings- og ytringsfrihed på universiteterne (Annual Research Policy Meeting 2007), page 6, and NOU 2006:19 om akademisk frihet, page 13. Research must among other things respect the rules of Good Scientific Practice and the legislation of the society in general.

Scientific freedom at Danish universities

Institutional scientific freedom

According to section 2(2) of the  Danish University Act, the university has scientific freedom which the university should uphold. The legislature has thus wanted to emphasise that the Danish universities have academic autonomy, and that they are independent of special interests, cf. the notes to the University Act (Bill No. 125 of 15 January 2003).

The universities’ institutional scientific freedom may be affected by the development contract which each university enters with the Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, cf. section 10(8) of the Danish University Act. The development contract is a non-legally binding agreement on the universities’ strategic development during the contract period, which typically will apply for 3 or 4 years.

The purpose of the development contracts is to promote the universities’ strategic development and support universities in this endeavour. Following an amendment to the Danish University Act of 2011, the development contract is expected to contain 3 or 5 goals which the Minister imposes on the university (”mandatory goals”) and 3 or 5 goals selected by the university itself (”elective goals”). The notes to the University Act include the following observations regarding these goals, cf. the notes to Bill No. 43 of 10 February 2011 (up and to no. 10):

”The mandatory goals are based on priorities from a social point of view. The target areas covered by the mandatory goals may vary from university to university and according to contract period. It may for example comprise goals for education for more students or increased internationalisation. The Bill does not include requirements for certain target areas to be included in the development contracts.

The elective goals should reflect the university’s own strategic priorities and profiling. They are laid down by the individual university”.

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Individual scientific freedom

According to section 2(2) of the Danish University Act the university must defend and uphold ”the scientific freedom of the individual researcher”, just as the university “must encourage its staff to take part in public debate”:

”As society’s central repository of culture and knowledge, the university must exchange knowledge and competences with the society it belongs to and encourage its staff to take part in public debate”. (Section 2(3), nos. 3 and 4.)

The individual scientific freedom was described as follows in the preparatory work for the 2003 University Act (see comments to the introduction (re. section 17(2)) of Bill No. 125 of 15 January 2003):

”The individual researcher enjoys freedom of research within the academic field of his/her employment, although bound by the obligations arising out of the employment.
The individual researcher can thus freely choose methodology, approach and subject within the bounds of the research strategies of the university as laid down in the performance contract”..”

The individual scientific freedom was not mentioned directly in the 2003 University Act. An amendment adopted in 2011 incorporated the individual scientific freedom explicitly into section 2(2) of the University Act and introduced the following provision in section 14(6) of the University Act:

”The rector may direct staff members to perform specific tasks or functions. Academic staff enjoy freedom of research and, within the bounds of the university’s research strategy, are free to perform independent research when not performing work assigned by management. The framework of the university’s research strategy applies to the entirety of the university. Academic staff may not be directed to perform specific tasks which require the entirety of their working hours over long periods of time, which would in essence deprive them of their freedom of research.”

The following appears from the explanatory notes to this provision:

”The amendment of the wording ”freedom of research” to the provision for individual freedom of research pertains to section 6. At the same time the wording is reorganised in order to emphasise that the premise is free research. Academic staff may continue to research freely during the time where they have not been directed to perform specific tasks. This means that they can choose topic, methodology and practice within the framework of the university’s research strategies. The Bill introduces an amendment so that the framework of the research strategy applies to the entire university.

The amendment also stipulates that the rector, or a duly assigned person, may not direct academic staff to perform specific tasks which require the entirety of their working hours over long periods of time, which would in essence deprive them of their freedom of research.

Time to conduct free research must also be ensured when performing research-based public sector services and assigned tasks. However, it is not possible to clearly define the extent of time for free research, as it will vary over time dependent on area and researcher. Thus it may well be that a researcher has less time for free research during a period of performing research-based public sector services or assigned tasks than during other periods.”

The individual scientific freedom entails, among others, extensive freedom of expression for researchers.

The actual extent of scientific freedom is mainly determined by a mix of formal and informal rules, funding, management practices and institutional framework, cf. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Forsknings- og ytringsfrihed på universiteterne (Annual Research Policy Meeting 2007), page 6, and more generally NOU 2006:19.

Merging university and sector research

Following the sector research institutions’ merger with the universities in 2007, universities have taken over a number of tasks including research-based consultancy and public sector services. This has given rise to discussion of the universities’ freedom of research, including in relation to the solution of these particular tasks.

Universities Denmark have indicated that research-based public-sector services are subject to the same ethical and qualitative requirements that apply to any other research, and that also when performing research-based public-sector services universities have an obligation to protect the researchers’ freedom of speech and scientific freedom, however, the public authority and the university may have to coordinate the timing of publication of consultancy results.

You can read more about this at

Scientific freedom at other Danish research institutions

The Danish Institute for Human Rights – Denmark’s National Human Rights Institution.

The Act supporting this institute contains the following provisions on scientific freedom:

”(5) The institution has freedom of research.

(6) The academic staff of the institution enjoy freedom or research and, within the bounds of the institution’s research strategy, are free to perform independent research when not performing work assigned by others.”

The explanatory notes to these provisions set out that :

”It is proposed that sections 4 and 5 be amended to clarify that the Danish Institute for Human Rights – Denmark’s National Human Rights Institution as an institution has freedom of research and that individual research staff members have academic freedom within the framework of the institution’s research strategies during such time where other tasks are not assigned to them. The clarification is made by the inclusion of provisions in line with the provisions on freedom of research under the University Act. It is assumed that the institution specifies the definition of research and related freedom of research for academic staff, cf. section 5, as well as what is meant by ‘other tasks’.”

Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS)

The Act on the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) contains no rules on academic freedom. However, from the travaux préparatoires (see section 3.1 of the comments), the following appears:

“In line with existing contracts between universities and the Ministry of Research, Innovation and Higher Education, the contract shall respect the Institute’s basic academic freedom and free choice of methods.”