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Scientists on the run: »They said that I was spreading propaganda and homosexuality at the department«

Freedom of research is under pressure in several countries, and it is forcing academics to flee. And the problem is moving closer to Denmark, according to two employees at the University of Copenhagen who help international academics who are in difficulties.

One Friday morning the phone rings from a hidden number. The voice on the other end says that this article must not disclose his or her gender, address, or home country. The fear of being tracked down is just too great. The requirements are from a researcher who has had to leave their home country after conducting research that was not acceptable to the »authoritarian government,« as the person calls it.

»It’s easy to be labelled an enemy of the state if you are critical of the government, either by voicing something on social media or by sharing new discoveries within your academic field. In my home country, a lot of researchers are in prison and can easily be executed. And many people have lost their jobs,« says the voice on the phone.

It is easy to be labelled an enemy of the state if you are critical of the government.

Persecuted researcher

I don’t really know who I talked to. The phone call from this person, was set up by the network Scholars at Risk, which helps persecuted researchers with temporary appointments at universities in the West, including the University of Copenhagen.

»These are people who have been courageous. They have put their lives and their families at stake,« says Vivian Tos Lindgaard, who is head of section at the International Staff Mobility office at the University of Copenhagen. She, with senior consultant Søren Høfler, is running the Danish section of the Scholars at Risk network. A network that since the 1990s has helped researchers continue their academic work after they have been forced to flee their home countries. The network has also helped the anonymous researcher I had on the phone.

Prevents PhD students ending up doing unskilled work

Denmark has been a member of the network since 2016, but due to a lack of financial support, it has so far only been possible to have the network established at the University of Copenhagen.

The Danish section of Scholars at Risk has helped a few researchers who are on the run at the University of Copenhagen. Their research work is maintained, and their identities are protected for their one year of employment with the option of an extension for another year. It is an important opportunity for the persecuted researchers to continue their career:

»Scholars at Risk helps prevent these people going down to the Sandholm [Danish, ed. ] refugee camp and applying for asylum there, and ending up as employees of the Føtex supermarket with a PhD degree. This is often the case for refugees with an academic background. They will end up stuck in a refugee camp for several years, waiting, and they will be broken down and lose their connection to the field and their skills in the academic world. This programme retains the researchers’ skills and their networks. They move on,« says Vivian Tos Lindgaard, who herself has had previous experience from the Danish Immigration Service as a head of the Sandholm camp, where she processed asylum applications.

This means that the skills are not lost behind the checkout till of a supermarket, and the Scholars at Risk network can hopefully also stand up against the claim that »refugees are only a burden«, as Vivian Tos Lindgaard puts it.

»It is important that we show that this is not always the case. In fact, some people can be a huge resource. It is as if you never hear these stories. We only hear about those who can’t figure things out and who are on welfare,« she says.

»This is also what’s wrong with our integration and refugee system. In Denmark you get refugee status – which is already very difficult to achieve nowadays – and then what? The municipality then pushes them through programmes with no eye to their research skills and any link to workplaces that employ highly educated foreigners,« says Vivian Tos Lindgaard.

Censorship coming closer

Many of the threatened researchers come from countries like Turkey, Iran and Thailand, according to Vivian Tos Lindgaard and Søren Høfler. Even though these countries may seem far away from Denmark, the censorship in research is closer than you might think:

What we see in the Netflix series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is, in many places, just daily life.

Søren Høfler

»The number of researchers who sign up for this network is increasing. The censorship that is circling around Europe is getting closer and closer to the Danish border,« says Søren Høfler.

We are not far from a daily life similar to our own, before we come across the censoring of research. Even in the US, it seems. Climate change and Donald Trump’s personal opinions about it can be mentioned as an example, according to Søren Høfler:

What we see in the [Netflix series, ed] The Handmaid’s Tale is, in many places, just daily life. Our colleagues in the US constantly tell us that less and less funding for research is forthcoming that is not consistent with Trump’s opinions. This is a crazy form of censorship.«

Name and picture in a newspaper with propaganda headlines

A few days after my first phone call, another persecuted researcher calls via Zoom. This time round I have an image of the person in question. And they – the person prefers to be referred to with the pronouns they/them – allows me to reveal their home country, Turkey, and their research area, which is social psychology with a focus on mental health, heteronormativity and sexism in the LGBT+ environment.

The person helped sign The Peace Petition, a petition from 2016 to stop the dispute between Kurds and Turks in south-east Turkey, a conflict where the government was accused of contributing to massacres.

As an advocate of queer rights and as a signatory of a protest document, the researcher from Turkey experienced problems during their PhD:

»My supervisor disavowed me because I had been involved in the petition. I got through it, but it was really tough,« the person says.

Taking part in the petition not only had consequences during the programme, but also on the job market afterwards:

»At one point, I got a job offer at another university, but when they found out that I had been involved in the petition, they withdrew the offer. They simply did not dare run the risk as they were afraid it might look like the university supported terrorism. I could not get a normal life up and running, in any way,« the person says.

It sounds like something from an action movie. That’s crazy, but that’s what happened.

Persecuted researcher

»The populist local newspapers started to print my name and picture. An investigation of me was started because I had run a workshop on the psychology programme about how to support queer students, just so that the instructors could master the basic terminology. They said I was spreading propaganda and homosexuality at the department,« the person says and laughs.

»It sounds like something from an action movie. It’s crazy, but that’s what happened.

Stress at work and concerns about the future

The person chose to leave their home country after Scholars at Risk had organised a job in Belgium, then Denmark and now Norway.

»The hardest thing about this system is that you get help, but only for one year at a time. Then you need to figure out what is going to happen afterwards. This is very frustrating. You can’t help but worry about what’s going to happen to you.«

Even though life is unstable, it does not change the fact that academic articles need to be produced, so you can be considered as the next hire. The researcher’s work starts at eight o’clock in the morning and ends at eight or nine in the evening – every day.

»I know that my time is limited and that I am assessed by how productive I have been during my stay,« the person says.

The person’s waking hours are either spent at work or at activist events with LGBT+ groups among ethnic minorities – but daily life is difficult:

»Three years ago, I thought I could make a fresh start when I was offered my first one-year job through Scholars at Risk. I only thought this would last a year. Now my thoughts about the future are always associated with anxiety. My stay has just been extended by one year, but what will happen after that? It stresses me out, and I’m tired of jumping from country to country.«

Life in a new country demanding, even if there are networks like Scholars at Risk:

»I feel more free to do my research. But when you come to a university as a persecuted researcher, it’s difficult to get to know people. After all, I’m only here for a year, and I often feel quite excluded. It’s hard to collaborate, because people don’t know me and I may not think I’m qualified enough. I didn’t really feel included at the University of Copenhagen, neither did I in Brussels. You are not seen as a colleague, but as a temporary guest.«

Attacks on freedom of research are weeds in the garden of Europe

Robert Quinn is a human rights lawyer, and he founded Scholars at Risk. We meet on Zoom, while it is still morning in his home New York City.

»The world now seems to see, why this work matters more now. Ten years ago, we took it for granted that everyone agreed on what the truth was. Now, people are attacking the concept of truth, that there is a truth and really just manufacturing what they claim, when it clearly isn’t from true a scholar’s point of view. I think the roots of the tree are under attack and it’s our job as a network to help explain that to the public and to defend those.«

Robert Quinn can understand why there is the fear that censorship of research is taking hold in countries that are oriented towards the West:

»There has always been this tension between ideas and power.«

There has always been this tension between ideas and power.

Robert Quinn

Quinn will not, however, go so far as to call president Trump a direct threat to the freedom of research:

»We have a leader and a leading party that are collaborating in an erosion of truth. That’s a problem, but it isn’t a direct attack on universities.«

According to Robert Quinn, a democratic country like Denmark is not at high risk of research censorship. Denmark is, however, geographically, diplomatically and financially linked to countries that do not follow the same rulebook:

»If you have a beautiful garden and some weeds appear, you should take care of them, right? It would be alarmist to say, that because there are a few weeds, the garden is about to be destroyed. But it’s not alarmist to realize, that if you don’t take care of them, they will eventually take over the whole garden,« he says.

We must become better at the difficult conversations

We all need to help maintain academic integrity, according to Robert Quinn.

»I think it’s really good that you, politely, but firmly insist on these difficult conversations and talk about the mechanisms and discourses at the university. We have to ritualize the practices of academic freedom, so that the whole community knows why it matters, and what it is.«

What can you do yourself as a teacher or a student?

»We are all small actors, but big solutions come from small actors working together. I think it’s important to have conversations about the mechanisms of discourse on campus. We have to ritualize the practices of academic freedom, so that the whole community knows why it matters, and what it is. So, when someone is being shouted down, is being disinvited, when someone is fired, that’s a violation of those principles. If we ritualize those, we develop a vocabulary together and some trust, so when something does happen, we can talk about it,« says Robert Quinn.

Has a life, but the family is not there

After the interview with the persecuted researcher who wishes to remain anonymous has lasted an hour, I have still not got a reply to many of my questions. More of the time has passed negotiating anonymity than with the person’s own experience of freedom of research and persecution in the hands of the rulers of their home country. But I’ve learned that the anonymous researcher’s daily life resembles that of many others: Work, TV series, sports with friends and a new car. And yet: What is missing is the family that they have not seen for four years:

»My family is still in my home country. We often talk over Skype. I think about them a lot. They are happy that things are going well for me here in Europe. I love my country, and I will try to go back as soon as possible. I don’t know when I’ll see them again. I expect that it will take at least three years before I can return home, but it all depends on how things go in my home country.«

The person thanks me for my patience in listening, and the hidden number hangs up.

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