The past weeks’ political conventions have once again brought home how deeply divided our country is when it comes to the issues of gay marriage and gay parenting. Feelings are so strong that their intensity can blind people to important issues of principle. That’s why it’s important to know that last week, the University of Texas at Austin announced that it had found no evidence that Professor Mark Regnerus had engaged in scientific misconduct when he published a paper that has been used to bolster the arguments of those opposed to same-sex parenting.
Regardless of your views on gay and lesbian parenting (FIRE, where I work, has no position on this topic and never will), it’s important that social scientists be able to study those families just as they do any others. The scientific misconduct inquiry at the University of Texas threatened to put this ability at risk.
The complaint that launched the inquiry made some accusations that might be appropriate for investigation — had there been evidence to support them, which the university concluded there was not. Worryingly, however, it also contained charges based on the personal and religious beliefs of Regnerus and some of his collaborators. Had these charges been sustained and investigated, they could have set a terrible precedent, with a potentially devastating effect on research into any controversial topic. UT concluded the inquiry in Regnerus’ favor, finding that the charges leveled against him were either unsupported or concerned factors irrelevant to his scholarship. But the whole ordeal serves as a sharp reminder that if academic freedom is to be safe on campuses, universities must be clear that they will not countenance investigations of their faculty members based solely on their political or religious beliefs.
Let’s look closer at the off-base charges. One claimed that the professor’s scholarship was suspect because "Regnerus converted from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism," specifying that "his Church is very aggressively involved worldwide in fighting against gay rights, including in the United States." Another was that "[s]ociologists from Brigham Young University were involved in the study design. … BYU has an ‘Honor Code’ that forbids members of the university community from doing anything that suggests that homosexuality is morally acceptable. To include BYU personnel in a study of gay human beings, is akin to asking the Ku Klux Klan to design a study about Jews."
For the University of Texas even to investigate such charges would effectively create a state-sponsored inquisition targeting researchers with the "incorrect" religious beliefs for their respective fields.
To be clear: Like any scientists, Professor Regnerus and the BYU researchers have the obligation to conduct their research without distorting it in order to support their personal beliefs, religious or otherwise. But to cite someone’s religious beliefs as a reason to begin an investigation into his or her scientific practices is abhorrent. Those who believe that a researcher’s religion is distorting his or her research must present solid evidence for their assertions — and universities like Texas must not launch inquiries based on religion without such evidence.
Another count of the complaint focused on research funding, stating that "Regnerus took a ‘planning grant’ of $35,000 from the Witherspoon Institute, where Robert George of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage is a Senior Fellow." It’s true that funding organizations frequently have their own agendas and funders often fund research that they expect to vindicate their own viewpoints. However, does that mean that any results produced by those receiving such funding should automatically be dismissed? University researchers have protocols that they are supposed to follow to ensure that the funding source does not compromise the science being done. While these protocols are sometimes ignored or abused in the pursuit of a certain result, one cannot assume that simply because a certain foundation funded a study that its results have automatically been distorted to fit that agenda and launch an inquiry based on that assumption.
So if the University of Texas did not find any wrongdoing on Regnerus’ part, why does this matter? It matters because the university has so far failed to specify which assertions it found worthy of inquiry and which it did not. Its report stated that "[s]everal of the allegations were expressly beyond the purview of the inquiry," but did not publicly specify which of the allegations those were. This is not a subject on which it pays to engage in the usual academic understatement. The University of Texas owes it to its faculty and students to make it clear that their religion and the religion of their collaborators, as well as their political opinions and the opinions of those providing their funding, will never be used to make a prima facie case against them for scientific misconduct. If it does not, the future of any faculty member conducting research into controversial topics can be at risk. Next time, the ox that is gored may be their own.