Freedom of scientific communication under siege

Posted: June 02, 2004

Recently, the National Academy of Sciences hosted an international group of prominent scientists and scholars, including two Israelis and two Palestinians, who discussed future operations and potential funding sources for the newly created Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization (IPSO), to be headquartered in Jerusalem.

News from the region at the time was bleak. Today, it is worse. In fact, during the meeting, Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University and a founding member of IPSO, said, "In the 1990s, Palestinians and Israelis had hope for peace based on a two-state solution. Today, Palestinians and Israelis alike seem to begin to lose that hope."

Grim as the future may appear, Nusseibeh and other like-minded Palestinians and Israelis continue to struggle for peace. We on IPSO's board believe that scientific cooperation, and the free communication it requires, can provide a lifeline, however slender, in the region.

IPSO is an encouraging initiative overshadowed by ominous threats to free communication, threats that endanger science and its benefits. For this reason, when two years ago 700 scientists and scholars, primarily in the United Kingdom and France, signed a petition calling for a moratorium on grants and contracts to Israel from European cultural and research institutions, there was a tremendous outcry from the larger scientific community, including myself. While we firmly believed in the signatories' right to disagree with Israel's policies toward Palestine, we opposed the politicization of scientific interaction and communication. We believed that a moratorium would seriously and unfairly harm our Israeli scientific colleagues, many of whom welcome opportunities for collegial engagement and open communication with their Palestinian colleagues. The petition was effectively quashed; the idea of IPSO was born.

Today, in the United States, scientists are also being denied their rights to free communication and scientific exchange. In February, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control reportedly warned several dozen U.S. scientists that they risked criminal and/or civil penalties if they traveled without a license to Cuba to attend an international symposium on coma and death. Foreign scientists invited to U.S. meetings, and foreign students wishing to attend or return to universities in the United States, are subjected to visa restrictions, delays, and denials that are seriously interfering with scientific interactions both in this country and abroad. Such measures not only are incompatible with the spirit of free scientific exchange; they also undermine the ability of the United States to maintain its leading role in the world of science.

This country has long proclaimed and been justly admired for its humanity, strong values, and commitment to dignity and justice for all. Sadly, its allegiance to these ideals increasingly is being called into question, the world over, by friend and foe alike. In recent years, U.S. scientists have been treated unjustly by their own government. Consider the well-known case of computer scientist Wen Ho Lee several years ago. Today, there is the sad case of Thomas Butler, an outstanding doctor and infectious diseases expert, who recently began a two-year prison sentence on significantly disputed charges. At first his university and the government had thrown everything from tax fraud to perjury charges at him; in the end, he was convicted of very dubious mail fraud charges.

Elsewhere in the world scientists are on trial, imprisoned, or murdered for communicating their scientific views. They include Nguyen Dan Que, a Vietnamese medical doctor and advocate of health care for the poor and press freedom, who has been frequently imprisoned and now, for more than a year, has been held incommunicado. Alp Ayan, a Turkish psychiatrist who treats and documents torture survivors, is facing two trials (although he recently was acquitted at a third). Yuri Bandazhevsky, a nuclear medicine specialist in Belarus who reported on the health effects of Chernobyl, is serving a seven-year sentence. Dario Betancourt Echeverry, a Colombian sociologist who studied violence, was murdered. And Myrna Mack, a Guatemalan anthropologist, was stabbed to death shortly after publishing a report on the plight of indigenous peoples.

Scientists and others must speak out against such repression of scientific communication. When we communicate through and about science, we embrace a truly international language, an international culture of openness, free exchange of ideas, and the search for truth. These qualities and values must be preserved and protected - in the Middle East, in the United States, everywhere.

Torsten Wiesel is a Nobel laureate and president emeritus of Rockefeller University.

Torsten Wiesel (Torsten.Wiesel@mail.rockefeller.edu) will speak at the College of Physicians (19 S. 22d Street between Market and Chestnut Streets) on Monday at 6:15 p.m. For reservations, call 215-563-3737, ext. 282.

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