News emerged last week that the University of Florida (UF), the state’s flagship public research university, had barred three faculty members from serving as expert witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit brought against the administration of Governor DeSantis.
This is a graphic example of political interference in the ability of scientists to speak freely about their work. The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS has long advocated for scientific integrity policies at the federal level to ensure scientists can speak free from political interference. We have also been working to engage the broader science community in the battle over voting rights and fair representation.
And now, thanks to UF, we have a graphic example at the state level linking these two issues together.
University scrambles to cover its tracks
At first UF said the governor had nothing to do with it. But the governor does appoint six members of the UF Board of Trustees—and the board chair is one of DeSantis’ most prolific fundraisers and strongest supporters.
Then the University claimed that the problem was that the faculty members would be compensated for their outside work, as if that were unusual. As a former University of New Hampshire Dean, I can assure you that it is not at all unusual for faculty to be compensated for external work and that there are clear rules for addressing conflicts of interest. And it has nothing to do with public funding of research as the UF administration implies. Research is funded from a wide range of sources. Most importantly, research funding must be to gain understanding of the processes at play, not to obtain any particular, politically acceptable answer.
Now, backpedalling, UF says the faculty members can testify if they are not paid, without any rationale. Why shouldn’t they be compensated by the plaintiffs for testifying on their work? The University is still far from acknowledging and committing to academic freedom, scientific integrity, and shielding scientists from political censorship.
The voting rights lawsuit in question
The issue at stake here? The bill supported by the DeSantis administration that restricts voting rights by curtailing opportunities for mail in voting, reducing voting hours, and making it illegal to provide food and water to people waiting in line to vote.
In the 2020 election, the Florida election was problem free. Nevertheless, Trump, DeSantis, and others have constantly questioned the security of the election, providing them with a bogus excuse enabling them to claim that their repressive, racist voter restriction laws are needed to “reassure” voters about election security.
So who are these faculty members from UF whose testimony is so dangerous to the case of those supporting voting restrictions? Political science professors Daniel A. Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Wright Austin study how election laws shape political participation, voter turnout, and African-American political behavior respectively. In other words, they research the very topics that are foremost in the voter restricting legislation being challenged. Perhaps the results of their research don’t support the governor’s measures, but that is the nature of scientific inquiry—evidence is the basis for the results, not political positioning.
We can’t accept state censorship of science
Scientists everywhere should be outraged at this attempt to suppress science in this public policy debate. The very idea that state university scientists should only be allowed talk about research that the current state government believes support its political positions should be anathema. Imagine the issues that could be affected. What are the impacts of climate change at a local level? How are state regulations benefiting or harming certain communities? What public health and safety threats are likely emerging? Are workers, communities, children, the elderly at risk? Are natural resources well managed?
Literally thousands of issues that scientists at public universities work on might be censored, proscribed, or stifled if we don’t defend academic freedom and scientific integrity.
Citizens everywhere should be outraged that our voting rules are being made without careful consideration of the evidence of what works to protect the right to vote. That evidence comes from scientists like Drs. Smith, McDonald, and Wright Austin. We have to insist that our democratic rules are based on facts and evidence, not political ideology or manipulating the rules and the narrative to maintain power.
This morning, the scientists published a response to the university’s actions. “As public employees, each of us has sworn an oath to “support the Constitution of the United States and of the State of Florida,” they stated. “Our oath binds us to the people of Florida, not the politicians in the government.”
Voting rules, drawing representative districts for state and federal representation, election processes – there is extensive, solid evidence about what strengthens fair representation and thereby democracy. And there is also evidence on actions that weaken our democracy.
Florida must not be allowed to get away with it. Because other states might follow, not just in political science, but in all fields of study. And that is a dangerous road that leads to the decline of our democracy. Steps toward government control and suppression of our academic institutions and freedom of speech must never be tolerated.