What do freedom and responsibility mean today, and why do they matter for the scientific community? Together with expert guests, the ISC will explore critical topics such as building trust in science, the responsible use of emerging technologies, combatting mis- and dis-information, and the intersections between science and politics.
In this first episode, Anne Husebekk (ISC Vice-President for Freedom and Responsibility in Science) and Robert French (Chancellor of the University of Western Australia) question the new threats that scientific freedom faces today — and the responsibilities scientists have to live up to.
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Human societies have always grappled with concepts of freedom and responsibility in their search for knowledge. But as societies evolve, so do their perspectives — and our world is changing more rapidly than ever.
The past few decades have brought social and technological developments that have changed the way science is practised and shared around the world — from social media to artificial intelligence. And while these have the potential to bring huge benefits to science, they also come with new responsibilities.
At the same time, we are living through unprecedented levels of mis- and disinformation. Attacks and harassment against scientists are on the rise globally.
And political tensions, conflicts and discrimination threaten scientific freedoms around the world.
Trends and challenges like these highlight that our ideas of scientific freedom and responsibilities must constantly be revisited. the International Science Council – the ISC – is committed to raising awareness and promoting thought around these issues. The ISC — is the world’s largest science organisation, working globally to advance science and provide scientific expertise, advice and influence on major issues concerning science and society.
In this podcast series we’ll be exploring contemporary perspectives on the free and responsible practice of science in the early 21st Century, and the challenges science faces. I’m Marnie Chesterton.
And in this first episode: what new threats does scientific freedom face today — and what responsibilities do scientists have to live up to?
The ISC’s vision is to advance science as a global public good.
Science should be of benefit to all citizens of the world. Unfortunately, scientific knowledge is still not universally shared, and accessible. This is what we mean with a vision of the International Science Council: advance science as a global public good.
This is Anne Husebekk, Professor of Immunology at the Arctic University of Norway, and ISC vice president for freedom and responsibility in science.
Science which is performed freely and responsibly provides immense value, and benefits to society. Whether it is in practical applications such as food production, and medicine and innovation of every kind, but also, through expanding the understanding of nature, space and technologies. Understanding and knowledge involves all aspects of our modern lives, and are also the answers to challenges in the modern world.
For this vision to become a reality, we must uphold one of the ISC’s key principles — freedom and responsibility in science. But what does that mean in practice?
Scientists require four freedoms: freedoms or movement of association, or expression and communication.. But freedom must be balanced by responsibilities. And scientists at all levels have a responsibility to carry out and communicate scientific work with integrity, respect, fairness, trustworthiness and transparency, but also recognise its benefits and possible harms.
Freedom and responsibility, then, are two sides of the same coin.
In 2023, scientific freedoms face a complex array of external pressures — which means that responsibility in science is more important than ever.
Robert French is Chancellor of the University of Western Australia, and a member of the ISC’s committee for freedom and responsibility in science.
In recent times, we see, I think, increasing attacks on scientists for expressing truths which are inconvenient to government or vested interests or, or, people who are wedded to intractable anti-science belief systems. Nature conducted a survey in 2021 of 300 scientists who had commented publicly about COVID-19, and 15% had received death threats.
At the global level, we see the rise of authoritarian populism affecting scientific freedom. And usually you find that connected with the denigration of science and scientists. And you’ll see that social media amplifies those views. We’re also seeing geopolitical tensions and conflict impacting on scientific freedom. And, of course, at a broader level, governments are increasingly interested in the national security implications of collaborations and funding arrangements.
So there are many fronts on which scientific freedom is under threat. By the same token, scientists working today also bear unique responsibilities. Like, for example, considering the risks and uncertainties of new technologies.
Examples are the growth and development of artificial intelligence. And in the life sciences, heritable human genome editing using CRISPR technology. And that involves the alteration of genetic material in the living person in a way that can be transmitted to that person’s descendants to prevent serious disease and when no reasonable alternative exists, but the risks are obvious enough. You’re bringing in criteria which are contestable and evaluated, and I think the debate has to be had and scientists have to participate in it.
One further area of, I think, enhanced responsibility is teaching science, and enhancing scientific literacy. Because we have ignorance of science, or scientific illiteracy, you have a space which is too readily filled by what I call the snake-oil salesmen
Given these varied and complex challenges, how can we protect scientific freedoms and uphold scientific responsibilities in the 21st century?
For its part, the ISC has developed four key principles to help shape our understanding of what science is, and how it should be practised today.
Firstly, science is a global public good. And that informs the mission of the ISC. Secondly, that science belongs to everybody — that it’s part of their collective heritage of all humanity. Thirdly, science is universal, but also diverse. And importantly, there’s a recognition that ethnic, linguistic, cultural and gender diversity of research communities, actually brings to bear understandings, which can be vital to the development of scientific knowledge, different ways of looking at things. And the fourth principle is the pluralism and autonomy of scientific institutions.
The ISC principles should enable science to add maximum value and benefit to all of us — to be, in short, a global public good. But Robert says there is an important caveat.
It’s important to bear in mind that the reciprocal relationship between science and society must not be translated into a requirement that all scientific research be demonstrated a priori to be capable of translation into concrete societal benefits. Basic science is the area of research in which the greatest advances have been made.
And there are cultural and geographical perspectives to consider here, too.
We have to accept that some of the perspectives reflected in my responses will not necessarily be shared in full measure in some parts of the world, and in some cases may be taken in some political systems to represent quote, Western values, unquote. So the global engagement of science has to be sensitive to accusations of cultural imperialism while maintaining fundamental principles.
The ISC is dedicated to ensuring freedom and responsibility through the work of its committee and in everything it does. And, to give Anne Husebekk the final word, this is something that needs to be constantly re-appraised.
I think the awareness of freedom and responsibility in science can never be stopped. But in everything we do, we look to the global scientific community to listen and to learn about freedoms and responsibilities that are required to ensure that science has a place in the society with the value and the value for everyone.
That’s it for this first episode in the series on freedom and responsibility in science from the International Science Council.
Next time, we’ll be looking at scientific autonomy. How do political interference, funding priorities and academic performance metrics infringe on scientific freedom? And at what point does autonomy compromise scientific responsibility?
The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.
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