Sequestering Speech: Stories of the Shutdown

This is the second of two excerpts from Index on Censorship dealing with scientific free speech in North America. See the first piece, on Canada’s muzzled civil scientists, here.

Government Shutdown rallyScientists in the United States have experienced their fair share of censorship. Last year’s partial shutdown of government has left the federal scientific community facing an even more uncertain future.

The crisis began in March 2013, when the U.S. government’s budget was sequestered, leading to immediate automatic cuts in public spending. Then in October, amid further political wrangles about the budget, the government closed down for two and a half weeks. Both events had serious implications for the rights to free speech of scientists working for or with the federal government.

With ongoing budget concerns and no prospects for revived public science funding on the horizon, the possibility of long-term detrimental consequences for federal science in the US looms large.

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This story by Gretchen T. Goldman first appeared in the March 2014 edition of Index on Censorship under the title, “Stories of the shutdown.”

Actions taken during the George W. Bush administration made it considerably more difficult for scientists to share publicly their research, and while there has been some improvement on that front, a whole new set of systemic challenges now undermines these scientists’ right to free speech. Nearly every federal science agency and programme saw their budget slashed by 5 per cent. Many programmes were no longer sustainable. There was a drastic decrease in the number and size of federal grants awarded to scientists both inside and outside government. Some laboratories were forced to close, and some researchers lost their jobs.

Scientists who survived the cuts were forced to work with newly imposed restrictions. Federal scientists were essentially barred from attending conferences; the unanticipated budget cuts led many federal agencies to make policy changes, restricting how many scientists could attend a given conference. Or they implemented no-travel policies altogether. In fact even scientists scheduled to deliver keynote speeches at prestigious events, including ones that had been planned for months or even years, were forced to cancel their appearances at short notice.

The right to attend conferences is part of scientific free speech. Conferences are where ideas are fostered and collaborations born. Scientific free speech includes the right of scientists to express their professional and personal opinions on a topic, and this also includes the right to publish and contribute meaningfully to the scientific community. In other words, scientific free speech is the right to be a scientist.

Most scientists tolerated this restriction. After all, it was thought to be a temporary impediment. As it turned out, the effects of the sequestration were only the tip of the iceberg.

To continue reading this at Index on Censorship, please click here.

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