Defending the Free and Responsible Practice of Science

The launch of the World Science Forum in Budapest provides a timely moment for the ISC to restate its principle of freedom and responsibility in science.


Engage with the ISC at the World Science Forum here.

This week, the World Science Forum will celebrate 20 years of history in science diplomacy, commemorating the 1999 UNESCO World Conference on Science held in Budapest and the prominent role the World Science Forum series has played in bringing together leaders of the world of science ever since. As László Lovász, President of WSF 2019 explained, the main theme of WSF 2019 is also a reflection of the topic of the original 1999 conference: The Ethics and Responsibility of Science.

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.

A commitment to protect these freedoms and advocate for these responsibilities is embedded in the Council’s Statutes, as fundamental to scientific advancement and human and environmental wellbeing. The Council’s Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science (CFRS) is mandated to oversee this commitment, which underpins all of its work. The Committee met in Paris on 18 and 19 November 2019, to discuss these issues and its activities for the coming years.

As described in the Council’s Action Plan, the freedom for scientists to pursue knowledge and to freely exchange ideas is coupled with the responsibility of scientists to maintain scientifically defensible conclusions, along with the responsibility of scientific institutions to apply high standards of logical reasoning, and respect for evidence, replicability and accuracy.

This sentiment was echoed by Daya Reddy, President of the ISC and chair of the CFRS, who said on the eve of the World Science Forum, “The right to scientific freedom goes hand in hand with responsibilities as scientists: for example, to ensure that scientific knowledge is made accessible to broader society; and to advocate on the underpinnings of consensus views that inform policymakers and society.”

There are four fundamental scientific freedoms that the ISC seeks to uphold:

  • Freedom of movement;
  • Freedom of association;
  • Freedom of expression and communication; and
  • Freedom of access to data and information.

These freedoms are threatened by attacks on the values of science and through individual cases of discrimination, harassment or restriction of movement. Such threats can be based on factors related to ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political or other opinion, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability or age. Their settings are often complex and it may be difficult to disentangle the scientific, political, human rights or socio-economic aspects of specific cases.

Scientists are responsible for conducting and communicating scientific work with integrity, respect, fairness, trustworthiness and transparency, and for considering the consequences of new knowledge and its use. The maintenance of ethical standards by scientists and their institutions is a prerequisite for trust in science by both policymakers and the broader public.

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 ‘post-truth’ 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 ISC’s Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science in the coming years must therefore be framed by the need for effective responses to the anti-science discourse and a re-examination 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.

During its meeting in Paris, the CFRS discussed its upcoming workplan, which includes:

  • Convening an expert working group to reach consensus on the meaning and interpretation of scientific freedom and responsible and ethical conduct in science, and on the responsibilities of scientists to communicate their knowledge in the public domain and to engage with policymakers. The working group will publish a position paper.
  • Developing a toolkit on protecting and encouraging freedom and responsibility in science, with particular emphasis on countries that are working to strengthen their science systems; and
  • Developing interventions, possibly based on existing guides and codes of conduct, which serve as the basis for promoting science communication that deals fundamentally with the values of the scientific enterprise, at the same time ensuring respect for audience, evidence and transparency.

Cheryl Praeger, CFRS Committee Member and Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences, said that the discussions in Paris had been stimulating and were a timely reminder of the importance of scientific freedom and the challenges it faces in the 21st century.

“This was a very important meeting with a committed and diverse group of people from the international science community, who have formed a strong bond and a keen sense of purpose, to pursue and strengthen freedom and responsibility in science”, she said.

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.

For more information on the CFRS and the ISC’s actions around freedom and responsibility in science, download the ISC’s Action Plan

Image: NASA on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Additional words: World Science Forum.