Advocating for Recognition of Freedom and Responsibility of Science in Today’s World

The right to share in and to benefit from advances in science and technology is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as is the right to engage in scientific enquiry, pursue and communicate knowledge, and to associate freely in such activities. But rights go hand in hand with responsibilities; in the responsible practice of science and the responsibility of scientists to contribute their knowledge in the public space. Both are essential to the ISC’s vision of science as a global public good.

The digital age has changed irrevocably the circumstances under which news and information are communicated. The ease and speed by which manipulated, biased or fabricated information is shared highlights the lack of editorial norms and processes for ensuring the accuracy and credibility of information.

Furthermore, the politicization of some issues at the science-society interface has contributed to an emergent, populist ‘posttruth’ stance on knowledge, and to the adoption of ideological or anti-scientific positions on topics such as climate change, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and vaccination, that are diametrically opposed to and in conflict with the scientific consensus on these issues. These developments pose a fundamental threat to the integrity of processes by which science informs policy-making.

Given this contemporary and ever-shifting context, the role of scientists in public discourse in advocating the use of scientific understanding that is relevant to public policy and societal debate has never been greater. When scientists engage in highly controversial and politicized scientific debates, it is vital that they respect feelings, values and cultural contexts, while at the same time, remaining alert to the role of special interests that may impair public discourse.

The growing importance of science in responding to today’s challenges means that scientists and their organizations are increasingly drawn into muscular public debates where their authority and knowledge could be contested. It is crucial that the scientific response adheres to the principles of responsibility set out above while maintaining a robust advocacy for the scientific method.

The work of the CFRS in the coming years must therefore be framed by the need for effective responses to the anti-science discourse and a reexamination of the meaning of scientific freedom and responsibility in the 21st century. It will provide guidance on responsible conduct in science in the contemporary context, the ethical dimensions of associated activities and actions, and the boundaries of advocacy.

This work will make use of the unique global reach of the ISC in identifying the issues that affect scientists in their interactions with policymakers and the general public. It will explore and promote the right to science as a global public good and the right to scientific freedom. These rights are based on an implicit social contract that mandates science and scientists to uphold a set of scientific values, become engaged with integrity and honesty, and act ethically.

The CFRS will develop globally informed guidance for ISC members, for research and educational institutions, and for individual scientists and their communities on what constitutes responsible conduct in contemporary science.

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