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Posted: October 24, 2008
Freedom, responsibility and the universality of science
(Nanowerk News) The social responsibilities of the global scientific community and the values that should guide the conduct of scientists are at the core of a new booklet released by the International Council for Science (ICSU).
Since its establishment in 1931, the ICSU has often been called on to speak on behalf of the scientific community on issues pertaining to science in all its forms. The new booklet, entitled "Freedom, Responsibility and the Universality of Science" (pdf download, 980 KB), is published in the wake of a number of high profile cases of scientific misconduct.
The booklet explains the 'Principle of Universality of Science' which is based on non-discrimination and equity. In the eyes of the ICSU, this issue of universality has been crucial to the progress of science. What this means for science is that all scientists, no matter their background, should have the chance to participate on an equal footing in legitimate scientific activities. It also encapsulates the notions of freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists, as well as equitable access to data, information and research materials.
Apart from affirming the universality of science, the booklet also outlines the duty and responsibilities of scientists. For John Sulston, a member of the ICSU Committee and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, outlining responsibilities was an important factor.
'It is critical that scientific freedoms are preserved, but we all have responsibilities as well-both to our fellow scientists and the public at large,' he stated. 'We must fully accept these responsibilities if public confidence in science is to be maintained and if the full potential of science is to be used to address the major global challenges that face society.'
Part of the reason why the responsibility of scientists is being discussed is the scientific community's recognition that it needs to better engage with its stakeholders in society in explaining, developing and implementing research agendas. It acknowledges that science has provided many benefits over the years, such as increasing the average human lifespan, but at the same time some technologies being developed may inadvertently have adverse effects on people and the environment.
'In many ways, what the booklet says is simple, but actually reaching agreement on these issues was surprisingly complicated,' explained Bengt Gustafsson, chair of the ICSU Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the Conduct of Science (CFRS), which produced the booklet. 'Hopefully now we have a starting point for the different parts of the scientific community to establish their own more specific guidelines, codes or practices, where these are lacking.'
Over the years, the ICSU has been at the forefront of standing up for scientists facing persecution. In the 1980s it supported Andrei Sakharov when he was persecuted by the former USSR for speaking out against its irresponsible scientific behaviour. A similar group of concerned organisations acted on behalf of Nobel winner Wangeri Maathai when she was imprisoned for speaking out against the Kenyan government over its environmental practices. More recently the ICSU intervened on behalf of Russian environmental engineer Alexander Nikitin, who wrote with a Norwegian environmental organisation about the dangers posed by nuclear dump sites and nuclear-powered submarines of the Russian Northern Fleet.