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International Council wants scientists involved with social demands

Science and scientists must review their principle of neutrality, up until now considered the base for the production of knowledge, and get themselves involved, once and for all, with the more critical demands of society. This new attitude demands that they take up the task of providing the knowledge necessary for the solution to problems considered to be of priority, such as, for example, the preservation of the environment through sustainable development, genetically modified organisms or the use of totipotent cells in research activities. The present moment, stated Jane Lubchenco, the new president of the International Council For Scientific Unions (ICSU), demands that they negotiate “a new contract with society”.

And the first step is to have a dialogue, ponders Carthage Smith, ICSU’s executive director. “Society must understand the limits and the risks involved in the scientific process, if we want to make progress. The development and advancement of science depends on this understanding”, he explains, and further adds: “The people who make the decisions in the political field, must also be informed, under the threat of blocking off the advance of science”. The new agenda for science at the beginning of this century was the central theme of the 27th General Assembly of the entity, which brought together representatives from diverse countries to Rio de Janeiro between the 24th and the 28th of September last.

At this meeting the proposal for the elaboration of an international agenda focusing on a development model that does not threaten the planet’s natural resources, was approved. The ICSU decided to take on the commitment of pushing this project forward, in spite of the frustrating results that came from the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, in South Africa from the 26th of August until the 4th of September of this year. “Our maximum priority is to place within reach an integrated approach that deals with the economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainable development”, explains Jane Lubchenco.

“After what for many was a disappointment in relation to the results of the policies of Rio+10, it is really stimulating for the international scientific community to reach a consensus about the necessity of rolling up our sleeves and creating a plan for science directed towards sustainable use”, she completes.

The ICSU, founded in 1931, is a non-governmental organization that represents the national academies of science and the international scientific unions. With a total of one hundred and twenty eight members, the entity acts as a debate house for the exchange of ideas and scientific data, proposes the development of norms and international collaboration networks for research and establishes committees and policies for evaluating problems of interest to scientists.

With the decision of the 27th Assembly on sustainable development, the ICSU widens its field of action, since it will also be taking on the task of delineating and coordinating interdisciplinary programs of research in areas of global changes to the environment. In order to face this new challenge, the ICSU is going to establish regional offices in Asia, Africa, Latin America, in the Caribbean and in the Middle East in order to strengthen regional collaboration.

“These regional offices are going to make it possible for the ICSU to collect information on what are the priority necessities to these regions, as well as bringing closer together traditional scientific knowledge to confront local problems”, says Goverdhan Mehta, the president of ICSU and the director of India’s Institute of Sciences in Bangalore. These offices are also going to act as information centers for transferring to the global scientific community knowledge obtained at the national level.

Science and freedom
The ICSU has also decided to look into problems that threaten the principle of universal freedom in conducting research. The international science agenda, in the evaluation of the entity, demands, more and more, collaboration that integrates the diverse fields of knowledge and that involves the participation of several countries. Consequently, it is defending three basic principles: freedom in scientific practice and the publication of results; freedom of communication between peers and the spreading of scientific information; and freedom of movement of material relative to scientific research.

For example, as a consequence of the terrorist attacks of the 11th of September of 2001, the United States went on to adopt measures of security that have created difficulties for the researchers of some countries to obtain visas in order to participate in scientific conferences. In September last, the at that time president of ICSU, Hiroyuki Yoshikawa addressed a letter to the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, manifesting concern in relation to this problem, and at the same time, looking to initiate dialogue for a future agreement “mutually satisfactory to the parties involved”, according to the text of the document distributed by the entity. Any restrictions to the principles defended by the ICSU could cause “negative impact on the values of science, both at a national and international level”, in accordance with the document.

Academic boycott
In April last, the ICSU had already divulged a joint declaration against “an academic boycott towards Israeli scientists” and against the dismissal of two intellectuals, also Israelis, from their positions on the editorial boards of two magazines that publish in the United Kingdom. These measures violated the principles defended by the entity. “We can understand the strong reactions generated by conflict – for example, that which is occurring in the Middle East -, as well as the desire of individuals and groups to boycott or demonstrate contrary views or disgust for the actions of national governments and of other sectors. Nevertheless, to do this via actions against isolated intellectuals is to sacrifice a principle of liberty that is profoundly important”, as stated in the document signed by the ICSU’s Scientific Board – on which José Galizia Tundisi holds the position of vice-president of Scientific Planning of the entity – and by the members of the Permanent Committee for the Freedom for the Conducting of Science (SCFCS).

“We want to examine these questions from various points of view and to find solutions that make it possible for us to work together with governments and political representatives in a manner of securing that the universal right of scientists is maintained intact”, explains Peter Warren, the president of the SCFCS.