What do freedom and responsibility mean today, and why do they matter to the scientific community? With expert guests, the ISC will explore critical topics such as building trust in science, using emerging technologies responsibly, combatting mis- and dis-information, and the intersections between science and politics.
In this fourth episode, Sir Peter Gluckman (ISC President and former and former chief scientific advisor to Prime Ministers in New Zealand) and Saja Al Zoubi (Development economist at St Mary’s University in Canada) explore the role of science in resolving conflicts and the respective responsibilities of states and scientists.
How do political tensions or wars affect the integrity of science and the lives of scientists? Should countries in conflict collaborate scientifically? Tune in as our guests discuss scientific collaboration, the challenges faced by scientists in war-torn countries, and the importance of support from global scientific bodies to preserve academic identity and promote peace.
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“If we can build trust through science, that may well lead to greater trust in other aspects of the multilateral tensions that are there at the moment. Now, that may sound utopian, but in fact, I think it’s a very real, real potential for the role of science.”
“Feelings of isolation were very common among scientists and researchers during the war. Questions persist as to what is the future of knowledge production in the home country? What are the chances to rebuild the home country? Where are female scientists in all of those?”
Hello and welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council, on freedom and responsibility in science.
I’m Marnie Chesterton, and this time, we’re looking at the role of the state. What responsibilities do states have when it comes to these issues? Should countries in conflict collaborate with each other scientifically? And how do political tensions or wars affect the integrity of science, and the lives of scientists?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights implies the right to participate in free and responsible science. And, in 2017, UNESCO developed recommendations on how countries should support science, promote ethical conduct, and give scientists the freedoms to carry out research that can provide value to society.
197 countries signed up to the obligations. But in 2021, UNESCO reviewed progress on the recommendations, and only 37 countries made voluntary reports on how they were performing.
This is Sir Peter Gluckman, President of the ISC and former chief scientific advisor to Prime Ministers in New Zealand.
The issue is, of course, countries willingly sign up. In reality, you’re then reliant on the goodwill and the nature of the governments in an individual country for how it’s actually reflected into practice. And that’s the nature of the reality of national interest versus multilateral agreements. And certainly the International Science Council will be taking an active role in how countries are following the recommendations that they signed up to in 2017.
Given that it’s easier for nations to sign up to recommendations than it is for them to implement them, what can the scientific community do to make sure those responsibilities are upheld?
Every country faces a set of issues that require science to solve them. And scientists need to engage with their society, and they need to understand and learn the skills of interacting with the policy community. That generally means scientific organisations need development, be them academies or, or disciplinary bodies. And that can be done in countries at every scale of development, to the least developed to the most developed country. The International Science Council can help countries develop those skills. And it has its own role in working with UNESCO and with the United Nations system to encourage the use of science for better policy making for the health of a planet, the health of ourselves and for economic growth around the world.
According to Peter, for science to live up to its potential, states need to develop a kind of ‘science ecosystem’.
First of all, it must have people who are knowledge generators; it must have universities. Depending on the scale of the country, it may need research institutes. Secondly, it needs to organise its scientific bodies, pluralistically, so that it can synthesise knowledge, which may come from within the country or from internationally, to actually be of value to society. And thirdly, ideally, it needs to work out with governments the skills of knowledge brokerage, so it can advise governments and advise society of what science can do. But equally, what is beyond science and science cannot answer. I think humility and trust are the key attributes of that interface.
Helping to grow ecosystems like this is part of the ISC’s vision to advance science as a global public good. But this effort faces huge challenges in the years ahead, amid global crises like climate change and pandemics, as well as geopolitical shifts.
And the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022 has brought renewed attention to complex issues of science, conflict and collaboration.
Science is at the heart of conflicts, because science drives technologies and the history of warfare is effectively the history of technologies. And so you can understand the difficulties that countries in conflict have finding the boundary between where collaboration continues to be possible, as we’re seeing at the present time in the space endeavour, and where collaboration is obviously not possible.
My own view is that the key issue is what happens when the conflict resolves. All the parties know that science will be critical in the post-acute conflict phase. But I think in the acute phase of conflict, we’ve just got to accept that there’ll be other issues in play. So I think science can play a role. And certainly, that’s what we in the ISC see our role will be when we get past the hot phase of the war.
So science does have an important role in building relationships and diplomacy after conflict. But what happens when states fail in their responsibilities towards science? Like when they collapse because of war, or when they impose political and ideological agendas on science?
Saja Al Zoubi
The scientific environment in Syria got affected significantly by war, as international sanctions, lack of facilities, local bans to collaborate with international academic and research centres, in addition to lack of research quality and quantity. So all of these things in addition to domestic chaos and regional tension.
This is Saja Al Zoubi, a development economist at St Mary’s University in Canada who worked as a scientist in Syria.
Saja Al Zoubi
Governmental researchers and scientists are not allowed to cooperate or work with foreign organisations outside of Syria, without permission. Getting permission was almost an impossible process, which takes a long time and has no guarantee for approval. I had to use two types of résumé, one for internal use. So I don’t mention any international collaboration. And the other one with all my achievements and my work history. This only for international use, I couldn’t use it in Syria. So these restrictions can cause a lot of trauma and mental and physical exhaustion. Some of these limitations are more severe when it comes to female researchers.
Saja points out that in situations like this, scientists and researchers clearly have different responsibilities and priorities when it comes to their work…
Saja Al Zoubi
Researchers in war should follow specific tactics to be safe. Field work in conflict areas is very harsh, and is very dangerous. So their priority at that time, you know, it’s first to protect yourself, and then you can produce knowledge.
But the international scientific community has new responsibilities, too – not to leave the affected scientists behind…
Saja Al Zoubi
Global and international scientific bodies should take the responsibility to save science and scientists and those collapsed states, in terms of supporting academics and scientists. So here it’s very important to maintain their academic identity, either in Syria, or outside of Syria. So this could be by providing access to academic databases, journals, and finding mentorship programmes. And in terms of supporting the future students, the first and foremost is by learning English. Focus on the English language and fill gaps in learning individual disciplines. There are many issues here about how to actually support institutions and individuals, in terms of science, but I think such support could impact significantly on those who remain in exile or even those who are still in Syria. And it’s very important to build peace. And I think these are the key words to build peace.
That’s it for this episode on freedom and responsibility in science from the International Science Council.
The ISC has released a discussion paper on these issues… You can find the paper and learn more about the ISC’s mission online, at council.science/podcast
Next time, we’ll be looking at new technologies. How do scientific responsibilities change in the light of technologies that can bring benefits, but also harms? And what can an indigenous perspective bring to our thinking on these issues?
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.
Image by Drew Farwell on Unsplash.