The news last week that University of Auckland public health researcher Simon Thornley was retracting a co-authored paper about supposed vaccination risks during pregnancy raised deeper questions about the limits of academic freedom.
Academic freedom is an essential tenet in healthy academic research and in a democratic nation. But it can’t be the cover that justifies the publication of shonky conspiracy theories and wild claims of magical thinking. That is why there must be a strong expectation of responsible conduct coupled with academic freedom. Institutions must be prepared to act promptly and publicly when flawed claims are having deleterious public consequences (such as vaccination hesitancy).
The university itself responded publicly by asserting, “As an academic staff member […] Dr Thornley has the right to exercise his academic freedom.” The vice-chancellor later said, “While the University supports academic freedom, we do require research to be conducted with a high degree of integrity.”
The controversy follows an earlier one in July, when a group of academics published an open letter questioning the scientific status of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge). The Royal Society Te Apārangi issued a statement rejecting their views and affirming the value of mātauranga Māori as a knowledge system.