Workshop 2018

Research group “Independence of Research”

The independence of research – interdisciplinary perspectives

Call for Contributions to a Workshop on 15 and 16 November 2018 in Berlin

The independence of research is a key strategic problem of modern societies. Science has become a major source of wealth, and is increasingly seen as a possible source of solutions to critical problems of contemporary societies. Not surprisingly, the question of who should be able to influence research and how this can be accomplished without damaging its productivity becomes increasingly important. Advocates of the independence of research see it as a functional requirement for science to prosper and deliver benefits to society. Others argue that the current degree of independence shields a publicly funded societal sub-system from societal control, which is perceived to be undemocratic. In this context, the independence of research from the state and industry is considered advantageous because political and economic interests create biased science (Kleinman and Suryanarayanan 2013; Krimsky 2013), while independence from ‘the public’ and civil society actors is seen as problematic because legitimate interests in society do not have access to research (Brown et al. 2006; Frickel et al. 2010). The counter-argument is that ‘ignorant’, ‘prejudiced’, and ‘irrational’ social milieus should not be able to put pressure on science, whereas rational and important economic or political interests should have a privileged access to science (for economic interests see e.g. Etzkowitz 2002, Vest 2007). This incomplete list of arguments shows that the question of how independent science should be from whom is unlikely to find an undisputed answer.

The increasing awareness of the sciences’ role as a basis of power in modern societies changes approaches to the independence of research. At the same time, we observe that changing conditions create new challenges to the independence of research in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Changing societal conditions include the increasing integration of science in political processes, growing demands for useful research (Hessels et al. 2011, Berman 2012), cuts in funding (Makkonen 2013, Feller 2016), and the mounting pressure on efficiency. Endogenous challenges to the independence of researchers stem from the undermining of mutual trust by the reproducibility crisis (Baker 2016) and the discovery of questionable research practices (Fanelli 2009) in several fields. This occurs during a time in which the mutual dependence of researchers is deepening through the increasingly collaborative nature of research and the ubiquity of peer reviews.

The complex problems posed by these shifts are insufficiently matched by a collaboration of disciplines investigating conditions for, and effects of, the changing independence of research. Sociological, psychological, legal, economic, historical and philosophical perspectives are unevenly developed and insufficiently integrated. Problems of independence are usually framed in disciplinary contexts, and the relevance of other disciplinary perspectives or contributions is often overlooked. The research on problems of changing independence also rarely interacts with reflections by scientists on their independence, or with actions taken by professional associations, journals, and funding organisations.

Our workshop aims to initiate an interdisciplinary conversation about changing conditions for the independence of research and their impact on the production of scientific knowledge. We invite scholars from all disciplines studying science and scientists concerned with the independence of research in their field to present their disciplinary perspective, theoretical considerations, or empirical research related to the independence of research. We know of the following perspectives to be relevant but invite researchers to submit others, e.g. historical and psychological perspectives.


From a sociological perspective, the main interest is how the processing of changing dependencies of and within scientific communities affects the situation in which researchers construct problems and approaches to solving them (Whitley et al. 2010). How do the complex constellations of societal actors overlap with the authority relations in scientific communities to create the situations in which researchers have to negotiate their (in)dependence? What are the aggregate effects of these authority relations for the directions of research and the creation of knowledge and ignorance?


From an economics perspective, two conditions for the (in)dependence of research are of particular interest. First, academy-industry links impact the situations of researchers (Krimsky 2013), and the participation of industry in the production of scientific knowledge may affect scientific communities (Murray and Stern 2007). Second, competition is becoming increasingly important in the production of scientific knowledge. Researchers both depend on each other’s results and compete on various levels for resources and attention of their communities. They also depend on research organisations and funding organisations, which in turn compete for resources and influence. How is the (in)dependence of researchers and research organisations affected by these competitions and their intensification?


For the philosophy of science, independence is related to research ethics, the political philosophy of science, and social epistemology. Specific principles suggested for research ethics include striving to eliminate personal biases or to not interfere with scientists’ opportunities to pursue new avenues of research and criticize existing views. Research on such principles has not yet been related to different forms of (in)dependence of research. The political philosophy of science has developed several types of arguments for scientific freedom (Wilholt 2012). At the same time, other authors have emphasized how science should be dependent on societal values in a democratic society (Kitcher 2011). How can these different types of arguments be reconciled? Finally, the concern of social epistemology with objectivity can be linked to independence. What kind of independence enables what kind of objectivity?

Legal studies:

Jurisprudence addresses the ways in which the independence of research is legally protected. In an internationally comparative perspective, the perhaps varying national legal traditions of understanding independence of science and the effectiveness of different forms of legal protection such as the specific constitutional guarantee of freedom of research, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech, and the guarantee of institutional autonomy for universities are of particular interest. This includes the question of how these forms change, particularly in the context of reforms of higher education. What are their specific legal advantages and disadvantages?

The sciences:

In many scientific disciplines, emerging discussions can be linked to the independence of research (Lo and Field 2009). The most obvious of these discussions concerns conflicts of interest due to financial links to industry. In medical sciences, financial ties of physicians and researchers to industry have come under intense scrutiny, and have been shown to cause bias in the conduct of research and the interpretation of research findings (Lundh et al. 2017). Regulations that are supposed to manage conflicts of interest in medicine have been introduced but their effects are largely unknown. How effective are they? How do declarations of conflict of interest affect the reception of research findings? A second discussion is linked to bias in research due to non-financial conflicts of interest, such as the influence of theoretical frameworks (“schools of thinking”), social or religious beliefs or similar. Discussions centre on ways to detect and manage them. The overarching question is whether the awareness of conflicts of interest and their impact on published research undermines the trust in findings, and what the consequences of such a loss of trust may be.

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This brief account of disciplinary perspectives already signals overlapping interests, which we would like to explore further at the workshop. We invite theoretical and empirical contributions, which may contribute to the disciplinary perspectives described above, add to them (e.g. historical or psychological ones), or explore interdisciplinary perspectives. Please submit abstracts of about 500 words until 3 September to Participants will be notified by 15 September. We will cover travel and accommodation costs of participants.


Baker, Monya (2016). “Is there a reproducibility crisis? A Nature survey lifts the lid on how researchers view the ‘crisis rocking science and what they think will help.” Nature 533, no. 7604, p. 452+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 3 July 2018.

Berman, Elizabeth Popp (2012). Creating the market university: How academic science became an economic engine. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brown, Phil, Sabrina McCormick, Brian Mayer, Stephen Zavestoski, Rachel Morello-Frosch, Rebecca Gasior Altman and Laura Senier (2006). “A Lab of Our Own”: Environmental Causation of Breast Cancer and Challenges to the Dominant Epidemiological Paradigm. Science, Technology & Human Values 31(5): 499-536.

Etzkowitz, Henry (2002). MIT and the Rise of Entrepreneurial Science. London: Routledge.

Fanelli, Daniele (2009). How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5738.

Frickel, Scott, Sahra Gibbon, Jeff Howard, Joanna Kempner, Gwen Ottinger and David J. Hess (2010). Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting. Science, Technology & Human Values 35(4): 444-473.

Hessels, Laurens K., John Grin, and Ruud E.H.M. Smits (2011). The effects of a changing institutional environment on academic research practices: Three cases from agricultural science. Science and Public Policy 38(7): 555–568.

Kitcher, Philip (2011). Science in a Democratic Society. New York: Prometheus Books.

Kleinman, Daniel Lee and Sainath Suryanarayanan (2013). Dying Bees and the Social Production of Ignorance. Science, Technology & Human Values 38(4): 492-517.

Krimsky, Sheldon (2013). Do Financial Conflicts of Interest Bias Research? An Inquiry into the “Funding Effect” Hypothesis. Science, Technology & Human Values 38(4): 566-587.

Lo, Bernard and Marilyn J. Field (eds.) (2009). Conflict of interest in medical research, education, and practice. Washington: The National Academies Press.

Lundh, Andreas, Joel Lexchin, Barbara Mintzes, Jeppe B. Schroll and Lisa Bero (2017). Industry sponsorship and research outcome. Cochrane Database Syst. Rev.

Makkonen, Teemu (2013). Government science and technology budgets in times of crisis. Research Policy 42(3): 817–822.

Murray, Fiona and Scott Stern (2007). Do formal intellectual property rights hinder the free flow of scientific knowledge? An empirical test of the anti-commons hypothesis. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 63(4): 648-687.

Vest, Charles M. (2007). The American Research University from World War II to World Wide Web: Governments, the Private Sector, and the Emerging Meta-University. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Whitley, Richard, Jochen Gläser and Lars Engwall (eds.) (2010). Reconfiguring Knowledge Production: Changing authority relationships in the sciences and their consequences for intellectual innovation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilholt, Torsten (2012). Die Freiheit der Forschung: Begründungen und Begrenzungen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.