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Fight the power

Independence of academic institutions is crucial if nations are to rebuild.

It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. But after wars have ended and nations are rebuilding, truth is a potent foe, too.

A free press and a strong academic establishment pose great threats to a despotic regime, and are often the first to feel pressure. In a News Feature on page 24, we document such tensions in Eritrea, where there are efforts to remove foreign influences from the nation’s medical schools and to break up its academic institutions. Eritreans who have fled or been exiled lament the sorry state of these institutions, and fear that by severing ties to US universities, the government has squandered chances of extraordinary gains in public health. (Representatives of the Eritrean government did not respond to several requests for comments on these and other allegations.)

Many who helped to lead Eritrea to its independence in 1991 and establish the current regime were academics, students and physicians — the very type of people (and, in some cases, the actual people) that the country’s leaders are now marginalizing. This irony should not be a surprise, given that thriving academic institutions in new regimes can serve as hotbeds of dissidence, unrest and further revolution.

For a country such as Eritrea to reach a stable equilibrium, this destructive cycle must be broken. And this is perhaps the best lesson that Eritrea can give to nations that must build new governments. It is expected that academics will be involved in the overthrow of unjust regimes, and that they will subsequently be called on to support burgeoning governments. But these people must strive to remain independent from the start. The desire to trust and indulge former comrades may be strong, yet academics must reject all interference and resist any attempt by government to grab control of institutions.

To stand up to power in this way is difficult, but there is much at stake. Independent institutions will produce and support well-informed, independent citizens, who remain the most effective defence against corruption and the abuse of power.

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Fight the power. Nature 491, 8 (2012).

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