Scientific freedom is not for everyone

How systemic flaws hamper the freedom of early career researchers in Germany

Jana Lasser     |     |     @janalasser

slides available at

Scientific freedom     |     Wissenschaftsfreiheit

Art and science, research and teaching are free. Freedom of teaching does not absolve from loyalty to the constitution.

Kunst und Wissenschaft, Forschung und Lehre sind frei. Die Freiheit der Lehre entbindet nicht von der Treue zur Verfassung.

Art. 5, para. 3, German constitution


What is scientific freedom and who profits from it?

Systemic flaws that hamper scientific freedom for ECRs

What can be done to improve the situation?

Who am I?

  • 2008 - 2015: Studied physics in Göttingen.
  • 2015 - 2018: PhD at MPI for Dynamics and Self-Organization.
  • During PhD: part of Max Planck PhDnet, 2018 president of PhDnet.
  • Now: PostDoc in the Computational Social Science Lab at TU Graz.
  • Advisory board member – network of doctoral researcher networks.
  • Member of the newly founded network against abuse of power in science.

  • Scientific freedom

    What is it?

    Freedom of ends: the scientists involved in research should themselves decide which projects and approaches to pursue.

    Freedom of means: society or the state must provide for the resources required to conduct all the research that the scientists deem important.

    Wilholt 2010: "Scientific freedom: its grounds and their limitations"

    Examples of derived protective rights

    Objection of universities to political influence on the research agenda.

    Objection of faculties to institutional influence on hiring processes.

    Objection of professors to mandatory leadership trainings.

    Objection of researchers to ethics requirements for research.

    Who is protected by scientific freedom?

    Everybody engaged in research activities that are characterized by some degree of independence.

    A PhD degree is proof of the ability to conduct independent scientific work → doctoral reserachers are subject to scientific feedom.

    In Germany, all non-professor researchers usually are subject to directives (Weisungen) by their supervisors.

    Who profits from scientific freedom?

    Only professors enjoy full scientific feedom.

    For all other researchers, the tension between directives from supervisors and freedom of conscience limits their scientific freedom.

    Ordnung in der Wissenschaft 2020: Weisungsrecht und Forschungsfreiheit

    Who are these other researchers?

    Reproduced from Bloch et al. 2021: Arbeits- und Beschäftigungsbedingungen an Hochschulen in Deutschland


    Almost all researchers in Germany are non-professors. If Scientific freedom only protects the right of professors to perform reserach following their conscience and scientific standards, the majority of research performed in Germany is not protected by scientific freedom.

    Systemic flaws that limit scientific freedom

    Multiple dependencies

    Supervisors can tell their subordinates what to do and how → directives.

    Subordinates depend on their supervisors on a range of other dimensions → employment, evaluation, reputation and knowledge. (Lasser et al. 2021)

    Multiple dependencies might introduce motivations other than conscience and scientific standards and erode scientific freedom.

    In German academia, dependencies tend to be concentrated on a single person with few checks and balances.


    The majority of researchers in Germany are employed on temorary contracts.

    Reproduced from Bloch et al. 2021: Arbeits- und Beschäftigungsbedingungen an Hochschulen in Deutschland


    Contract durations are short: median 2 years. (BuWin 2021)

    Supervisors decide over contract extensions.

    Securing one's own livelihood is a strong motivation.


    In Germany, supervisors also evaluate the PhD thesis in the end.

    Supervisors often decide about article authorship.

    Supervisors can extort additional work (unrelated to the PhD project) by threatening a bad evaulation.

    Refusing additional work is risky since a failed PhD project is a huge amount of lost time.


    A good letter of recommendation is the prerequisite for many positions and fellowships.

    Academic fields are small and running somebody down from a position of power is easy.

    Going against one's own supervisor might well jeopardize a scientific career alltogether.


    Mobility is sold as virtue and ECRs are expected to move institutions and even countries often.

    Acquiring knowledge about how a system works is a necessary condition for being able to defend one's own rights.

    Supervisors are more likely to have been at an institution for longer than their subordinates. They have a systemic advantage in institutional knowledge.

    Representations such as works councils or university senates are incompatible with high mobility and short contracts.

    Multiple dependencies are a threat to scientific freedom

    Disagreeing with one's own supervisor is risky.

    Pleasing the supervisor might trump scientific integrity.

    Scientific freedom is eroded.

    What can we do?


    Separate decisions over employment from supervision – non-tenured researchers are not the property of professors.

    Ensure that contract durations mirror real qualification durations.

    Enforce responsibility of institutions for the qualification of their employees.

    Provide transparent and predictable career perspectives after the PhD degree.


    Separate evaluation from supervision and distribute supervision responsibility across multiple people (TACs).

    Involve multiple independent researchers in evaluation.

    Value diverse research contributions (software, data, outreach) and not only first (last) authorships.

    Evaulate supervision performance (exit interviews!).


    Scratch letters of recommendation.

    Ensure that hiring committees are trained to recognize their biases.

    Base funding decisions on lotteries and wild cards.


    Provide structured onboarding and offboarding processes.

    Strengthen representation of ECRs.

    Require administrations to communicate in English.

    Let's discuss!

    Either now, or via


    Twitter: @janalasser