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Is a scientific boycott ever justified?

Practical guidance is needed to uphold the universality of science.

From time to time a group of scientists proposes a boycott of other scientists who are citizens of a particular country, in order to mount a political protest against its government. We recently decided that it might be valuable to examine the principles that lie behind such proposed boycotts.

It is, we believe, not widely known that discrimination against a group of scientists on the basis of their citizenship is explicitly ruled out in the Statutes of the International Council of Science (ICSU: formerly the International Council of Scientific Unions). Indeed ICSU has a lower profile among working scientists than it deserves, given that it has amongst its members nearly 100 national academies of science and research councils (national, multidisciplinary organisations) and 26 international scientific unions (international organisations of single disciplines). Article 5 of the Statutes of ICSU states:

"In pursuing its objectives in respect of the rights and responsibilities of scientists, ICSU, as an international non-governmental body, shall observe and actively uphold the principle of the universality of science. This principle entails freedom of association and expression, access to data and information, and freedom of communication and movement in connection with international scientific activities without any discrimination on the basis of such factors as citizenship, religion, creed, political stance, ethnic origin, race, colour, language, age or sex. ICSU shall recognize and respect the independence of the internal science policies of its National Scientific Members. ICSU shall not permit any of its activities to be disturbed by statements or actions of a political nature".

The principle of universality of science, enshrined in this Statute, expresses a noble ideal, but we felt that its precise wording has certain unsatisfactory and unrealistic features: 1) It implies that scientists have an obligation to share their data and ideas more widely than most of them would find reasonable. 2) It might be taken to mean that scientists must, on request, associate with and even collaborate with any other scientist. 3) It says nothing about how these principles should be implemented, and in particular how the required communication, movement, etc. should be funded. 4) It includes the phrase "such factors as", leaving it unclear where the boundaries between permissible and impermissible discrimination lie.

We sought clarification of the principle in another of ICSU's documents, the Statement on Freedom in the Conduct of Science, from which the following excerpt is taken.

"Each of the International Scientific Unions, the National Scientific members, ICSU interdisciplinary bodies, and Scientific Associates – the organizations comprising the ICSU family – strictly adheres to the basic principles of the Council's Statutes when involved in activities carried out within the scope of ICSU's concern.

"One of the basic principles in these Statutes is that of the universality of science (see Statute 5), which affirms the right and freedom of scientists to associate in international scientific activity without regard to such factors as citizenship, religion, creed, political stance, ethnic origin, race, colour, language, age or sex. Such rights are embodied in a variety of articles in the International Bill of Human Rights.

"ICSU seeks to protect and promote awareness of the rights and fundamental freedoms of scientists in their scientific pursuits. ICSU has a well-established non-political tradition which is central to its character and operations, and it does not permit any of its activities to be disturbed by statements or actions of a political nature.

"As the intrinsic nature of science is universal, its success depends on co-operation, interaction and exchange, often beyond national boundaries. Therefore, ICSU strongly supports the principle that scientists must have free access to each other and to scientific data and information. It is only through such access that international scientific co-operation flourishes and science thus progresses..."

This statement, too, seems to us ambiguous in certain respects; however, we took it as a basis for our discussions. In doing so we made the assumptions that the phrase "scientific data and information" (last paragraph quoted) was intended to refer only to information in the public domain, and we set aside the phrase "such factors as" (second paragraph quoted) for our purposes here.

To the best of our knowledge religion, creed, political stance, ethnic origin, race, colour, language, age and sex are not offered nowadays as reasons to justify discrimination against (or in favour of) other scientists in professional relationships, presumably because almost everyone would agree that such discrimination is illegitimate. The question that needs to be considered is whether it can ever be proper to discriminate on the basis of citizenship, which is what is usually involved in proposing a boycott. Since discrimination on these grounds runs counter to the principle of universality of science, it is clear that if this principle is an absolute and inviolable guide to action boycotts will always be ruled out. However, universality of science (like all general principles) must from time to time conflict with other principles, and it is possible to envisage circumstances in which the former would come off the worse in such a conflict.

ICSU itself has occasionally encouraged members of affiliated organizations to decline invitations to hold or attend meetings in certain countries, where the principle of free circulation has been infringed. But we were interested in the possibility that, in certain circumstances, a true scientific boycott might be justified. For purposes of argument, we need to imagine an example so extreme that the reader will not dispute it – as extreme as a nuclear war. Suppose, then, that a general boycott of diplomatic, trade and cultural contacts has been declared against a rogue regime, as the only way to avoid nuclear war. Would not most scientists consider that the principle of universality of science should give way for the sake of a desperate attempt to avert an unspeakable evil?

If, in extreme circumstances, the principle of universality of science has to be weighed against conflicting imperatives, it is all the more important to spell out the reasons why scientists hold it to be precious. We suggest that they include the following: 1) The advance of science is potentially of benefit to all mankind, and therefore avoidable obstacles to its pursuit are undesirable. 2) Since the value of a given contribution to science ought to be judged on its own merits rather than on the basis of any characteristics of the person making the contribution, the exclusion of a particular group of people from the scientific enterprise for reasons that are irrelevant to the science itself (for instance, citizenship) is a perversion of the objectivity that science demands. 3) With humankind dangerously divided by race, citizenship, religion and so on, the continued ability of scientists to cooperate in a way that transcends these boundaries is an important symbol of, and impetus to, the breakdown of such divisions.

This last point, which we regard as having particular force, is worth expanding. The free communication of information and ideas has historically played a major role in the liberalisation of autocratic regimes – for example, it was one of the factors that led to the ending of the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe. Authoritarian governments try to suppress the flow of information and ideas, and to control the participation of their citizens in international activities. The task of scientists in other countries is surely not to exclude their colleagues who live under such regimes from international contacts, but rather to draw them into dialogue. More generally, scientists can cooperate in their work even when they belong to states that are in dispute with one another. Scientists from mainland China and from Taiwan, for example, attend international meetings together and usually interact on the friendliest of terms. Such contacts, which make an important contribution towards reducing hostility, can be formed more easily by scientists than by some other groups, because science aspires, however imperfectly in its practice, to a relative freedom from emotional content.

In our view, these are compelling reasons for according the principle of universality of science a high priority. But there is an additional argument against boycotting groups of scientists on the basis of citizenship. Except in extremely unusual circumstances, any call for a boycott is likely to be opposed by some scientists, either because they think the particular case too weak to outweigh the general principle or because they find it morally repugnant to hold their colleagues living in another country collectively responsible for the misdeeds of their government. Thus the boycott itself would become a cause of discord which, at worst, could threaten the integrity of the scientific community.

For all these reasons, we are clear that the threshold needed to justify a boycott of scientific colleagues of a given citizenship should be extremely high. A boycott should not be proposed unless the following conditions are fulfilled: 1) The circumstances are wholly exceptional, and the decision to mount the boycott has been taken after the most considered and careful scrutiny. Such a decision would have to be based on an explicit judgement that, in the case under consideration, it was worth sacrificing all the benefits that flow from the principle of universality of science for some overwhelming gain. Given that the principle of universality of science has survived the last 70 years, with all their horrors, it would be irresponsible to override it now for anything other than urgent and compelling reasons. 2) There is good reason to believe that a boycott would help to change the unacceptable behaviour of a regime. It would be quixotic to sacrifice the principle of universality of science simply as a gesture if that were unlikely to be effective. Moreover, to make scientists suffer for the actions of their government is inherently unfair, and can be justified only if a greater good can be foreseen. 3) Revulsion against the regime that it is proposed to boycott, and a belief in the necessity for exceptional measures against it, are so nearly universal as to make it probable that a boycott would be very widely respected. Not only would a contentious boycott probably be ineffective; it would be likely to lead to a rift within the international scientific community. 4) The proposed boycott is part of an extensive programme of measures, imposed by international agreement, which also includes diplomatic, economic, cultural and sporting sanctions. In such a case scientists would be joining with others in a collective expression of horror against a regime, with the intention of averting some foreseeable disaster.

In the hope of clarifying the way in which these principles might be applied to particular cases, we have considered some possible examples. a) If scientists of a given state have asked their colleagues in other countries to impose a boycott against them with the intention of putting pressure on their government, of which they strongly disapprove, should one do as they ask? It may be a noble act for scientists who are strongly opposed to their own government to sacrifice their interests for a deeply felt cause, and if they wish to withdraw from contact with their colleagues abroad we should respect that decision. But they are not entitled to sacrifice the interests of their compatriots, who may have a different opinion of their government, or who may feel that the shared cause is best served by maintaining contact with their colleagues abroad. Moreover, where the grave decision to violate the principle of the universality of science is at stake, the request of a group of scientists in one country cannot be taken as definitive. b) Dr X is known to have been personally involved in actions that violate human rights. Is it appropriate to impose a boycott on him? To boycott X in response to his own actions is not to discriminate against him on any of the grounds that are prohibited by the principle of the universality of science. Whether such a boycott is appropriate depends on the circumstances and on the strength of the evidence against X. In any event, X's actions do not entitle scientists in other countries to boycott his compatriots. c) Dr Y has written to a scientist in another country, asking him or her to provide information or materials for use in studying the spread of infectious disease. The scientist receiving the request knows nothing about Y, and cannot find publications under his name. Moreover, Y writes from an address that suggests that he works for the military of his country. His government is known to have used chemical weapons against its own citizens, and is widely believed to be developing bacteriological weapons. Given the principle of universality of science, is it justified to refuse his request? The development of bacteriological weapons is contrary to international Protocols. If you have good reason to believe that Y wishes to use your materials to further the development of such weapons you are not only entitled to refuse his request but obliged to do so. The address from which Y writes, and the nature of his request, seem to constitute sufficient evidence for you to suspect his motives. However, you are not entitled to discriminate against Y's compatriot who writes for information about an innocuous topic: he is not to be held responsible either for Y’s behaviour or for the appalling actions of his government. d) If the principle of universality of science prohibits discrimination against scientists on the basis of their citizenship, is there then no action that scientists in other countries may take to show their abhorrence of a reprehensible regime? Scientists have the same rights as other citizens to oppose policies of which they disapprove by all the means that the laws of their country of residence permit. They may also seek to persuade their colleagues, both in their country of residence and elsewhere, to protest against the government of another state, again by all means that are within the law. What the principle of universality of science seeks to prevent is the use of scientists as pawns in any activity that should properly be conducted in the political arena. e) If one accepts that a boycott against scientists of a particular nationality is to be ruled out, are actions short of a boycott permissible? The arguments that we have put forward apply to all forms of discrimination on the grounds of citizenship that impede contact between scientists in different countries or put obstacles in the way of legitimate scientific work. Discrimination short of a boycott is still discrimination. We concur with the formulation in ICSU's Statement on Freedom in the Conduct of Science: "On the basis of its firm and unwavering commitment to the principle of the universality of science, ICSU reaffirms its opposition to any actions which weaken or undermine this principle."

POSTSCRIPT

Given the strength of ICSU's statements in support of the principle of universality of science, we find it surprising that ICSU itself and its constituent organisations are not more active in making the principle known among working scientists. This reticence leaves the scientific community bereft of standards against which to judge the merits of a particular proposal for a scientific boycott. We would like to see national academies of science and international scientific unions make their members aware that ICSU, acting on behalf of scientists all over the world, regards the principle of universality of science as a central axiom of scientific conduct. We would also like to see the principle referred to in graduate training, and universally accepted as the norm to which scientists aspire.

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Blakemore, C., Dawkins, R., Noble, D. et al. Is a scientific boycott ever justified? . Nature 421, 314 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/421314b

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