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Commentary

What academic freedom?

The Inquirer ran an advertisement last June 22 titled “Professional Scientific Societies Support Bt Talong Field Trials. UPLB Will Ask the Court of Appeals to Reconsider its Decision to Stop the Field Trials of Bt Talong.”

The signatories in the ad claimed that the CA ruling was “against academic freedom” without explaining what, how and why. They apparently considered restrictions to the conduct of their research on Bt Talong (eggplant), despite the potential likelihood of serious and irreversible harm to health and the environment, as an assault on their “academic freedom.” This claim is utterly preposterous.

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Academic freedom is not absolute. The “academic freedom” invoked by the signatories ends where fundamental human rights begin. Considerations of “academic freedom”—in this case, freedom to do field-trial research on Bt eggplant—is nowhere as important as considerations of health and environment. The right to health and a healthful environment are fundamental rights that “academic freedom” cannot supersede. Whatever benefits that may result from the research cannot weigh more than the potential harm it may cause.

The CA ruling applied the precautionary principle stating that “in a human activity, project or program wherein science has not yet arrived at any consensus of its safety, the government, specifically the regulator, must take precautionary … [and] preventive measures so as to avoid or prevent or mitigate threats to health or to the environment.” If the signatories get what they want, the principle of precaution will fall by the wayside and the public will face serious threats to their health and environment.

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OPINION

It is not the CA ruling that violates academic freedom. It is the corporate hijacking of research in the state university that is seriously undermining academic freedom. The field-trial research on Bt Talong is largely directed and funded by the transnational corporation Monsanto, and the faculty and researchers involved in the field trials have become its instruments and are no longer independent researchers. The Bt Talong researchers and the professional societies backing them and blatantly promoting corporate propaganda have actually surrendered their academic freedom to their corporate patron. They serve, not the public interest, but corporate interest.

Academic freedom means the independent pursuit of academic excellence and scholarly work, unbiased promotion and dissemination of knowledge, and freedom to express opinions without undue interference or influence from big business or the authorities, for the benefit of the public and humanity in general. When a researcher, a professor or a student surrenders his/her independence to a corporate sponsor, he/she can no longer claim academic freedom.

The same is true with a public university that allows the intrusion of profit-oriented corporations into its academic and research programs. Corporate donation or investment in a public university such as the University of the Philippines is motivated by profit and “self-interest.” Intellectual property laws allow corporate donors to exercise ownership rights over patentable products despite the fact that the university’s resources (human and otherwise) provide the largest contribution to the discovery or development of a marketable and patentable product. In essence, big business is socializing its research costs and privatizing the profits.

Granting intellectual property rights to the corporate donor also impedes the free flow of critical information necessary for further independent research for the benefit of the people. The corporation has become the custodian of knowledge and, almost always, will not share that knowledge with other researchers, students, or the public.

This process, therefore, results in the privatization of knowledge. Such a situation is clearly against public interest and contrary to the established concepts of academic freedom.

Romeo F. Quijano (romyquij@yahoo.com) is a medical doctor and toxicologist, and a professor at the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology of the University of the Philippines Manila.

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TAGS: academic freedom, Commentary, education, opinion, Romeo F. Quijano
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