News: AAAS News & Notes
29 April 2005
Edited by Edward W. Lempinen
Science and Human Rights
AAAS Network Intervenes to Protect Persecuted ScientistsThe fax arrived at the AAAS Science and Human Rights office on a winter day: Oscar A. Kaibyshev, a top-flight Russian materials scientist, had been arrested by his country's security forces on suspicion of selling state secrets and exporting dual-use technology to a South Korean firm. With Kaibyshev facing a 10-year sentence, an American associate was appealing for help.
A burst of research by AAAS staffers established that the Russian's superplastic metal technology was hardly a state secret—it had been patented in the United States and explored in several research articles. The Science and Human Rights staff quickly put its Human Rights Action Network into gear, dispatching via listserv a call asking for letters and e-mails from thousands of scientists and human rights advocates worldwide.
The exercise was sadly familiar. According to AAAS's just-published "Directory of Persecuted Scientists, Engineers, and Health Professionals," the network in 2003 and 2004 was called into action more than once a month, on average. Sometimes working in cooperation with other science organizations, it campaigned to rally support for scientists and scientific freedom around the globe.
While developments often come slowly, the directory documents episodes of striking success.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian sociologist and founder of Ibn Khaldun Center for Developmental Studies in Cairo, was arrested along with 27 Center colleagues in 2000. He was charged with spreading malicious rumors about the internal affairs of Egypt and other crimes arising from a documentary done by the Center on voting fraud in Egypt.
After an outpouring of protest joined by AAAS and other groups, Egypt's highest court in 2003 reversed Ibrahim's conviction.
"AAAS was very instrumental in mobilizing not only the scientific community, but also the social science and the human rights communities in the United States and in the West, on my behalf," Ibrahim said in an interview. "Any message of solidarity and support has a tremendous impact in boosting the morale of the person or persons in prison. That's why I can't thank AAAS enough for what they have done for me and my colleagues."
Success generally is difficult to measure, said Victoria Baxter, the senior program associate who oversees the Human Rights Action Network, but the anecdotal evidence accumulated in more than 2000 cases since the network was founded in 1992 is persuasive.
"We hear from families that when lots of letters are being sent, when there are a lot of news stories, the treatment is better," Baxter said. "The involvement of scientists and their friends really does help to force the government away from trampling on people's rights."
AAAS's work to defend scientists and intellectuals dates at least to the rise of European fascism in the early 1930s. The Science and Human Rights Program was founded in 1977; early on, it engaged in campaigns on behalf of iconic Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov and other scientists worldwide.
While Sakharov had legions of powerful allies, less visible scientists are often at higher risk. In those cases, AAAS involvement can be critical, said SHR Director Audrey Chapman.
"Many people assume that, in the post-Cold War world, there is a reduced incidence of persecution of scientists and academics," Chapman said. "But that's not the case. It's just that people are less aware of the cases because most of them have not been publicized."
Of the 27 cases detailed in the new directory, none of the scientists is a household name. Nearly a third of the cases are in the Middle East or Northern Africa; Russia, China, and Guatemala all are hot spots.
Michele Irwin, international programs administrator for the American Physical Society, calls the AAAS network "invaluable" to volunteers on the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists. "AAAS has been our main source of information—that's where we go for anything we need," added Irwin, who oversees the committee.
Ibrahim is due to return home soon from a U.S. sabbatical; he's a candidate for president in Egypt. The espionage charges against Kaibyshev have been dropped, but he still faces a lengthy sentence for unauthorized sale of technology and other charges. He lost his job as director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Metals Superplasticity Problems, and he is barred from leaving his home city of Ufa. The trial is set for later this spring.
"There are some cases that go on for a long time and when that happens, I think about the people a lot," Baxter said. "The greatest aspect of my job is meeting the people who were subjects of our alerts. That makes the job much more rewarding, when you actually get to sit down and talk to a person and know that, at least in a small way, you were able to help them."
The "Directory of Persecuted Scientists, Engineers, and Health Professionals" is available at http://shr.aaas.org/dpsehp/. To order it on CD-ROM, call (202) 326-6790.
A Spirited Response to Anti-Evolution Movement
Confronted by mounting attacks on the teaching of evolution, AAAS has embarked on an ambitious, quick-response effort to support science educators and defend the scientific method.
The conflict has flared recently from Montana to Kansas and from Pennsylvania all the way to Brazil. Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner and other AAAS staffers have intervened with a series of appearances, op-ed commentaries, interviews, and letters.
The message has been consistent: Science and religion are not inherently in conflict. Many scientists are deeply spiritual, and most mainstream religious leaders accept evolution. But creationism and "intelligent design" theory mount an argument against evolution based on faith, not verifiable facts, and so must be kept out of science education.
The latest engagement came this month, after the conservative leaders of the Kansas Board of Education called for May hearings to weigh the merits of evolution against alternative explanations for the origins of human life. The hearing panel is to be dominated by officials seen as hostile to science, and some two dozen witnesses enlisted to testify against evolution.
Complaining that the forum was rigged, Kansas science leaders called for a boycott. When the board invited AAAS to testify, Leshner "respectfully declined" in a letter.
"The fundamental structure of the hearing…implies that scientific conclusions are based on expert opinion rather than on data," wrote Leshner, who is also executive publisher of Science. "Although scientists may debate details of the mechanisms of evolution, there is no argument among scientists as to whether evolution is taking place."
In March, the New York Times and other publications reported that science-related documentaries were being rejected at more than a dozen big-screen theaters out of fear that fundamentalists would be offended by brief, uncritical references to evolution.
AAAS responded with a commentary that was published in Brazil's O Globo newspaper and accepted for publication at El Mundo in Spain and in the Kansas City Star. In a related letter to 410 members of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), Leshner expressed "strong concerns" over the rejection of science films for religious reasons.
"The suppression of scientifically accurate information as a response to those with differing perspectives is inappropriate and threatens both the integrity of science and the broader public education to which we all are committed," Leshner wrote. "It is also objectionable to many stakeholders—including many with strong religious convictions—who understand that religion and science are not in opposition."
ASTC spokesman Sean Smith said his organization "welcomes AAAS's interest in working with us as we continue to carry out our shared mission of furthering the public understanding of science and the role it plays in people's lives."
AAAS's intervention generated positive response in the Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, the Financial Times and the Toronto Star.
Earlier this year, Leshner used an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer to speak out against school boards in Dover, Pennsylvania, and other communities that are requiring that faith-based theories of human origins be taught alongside evolution in classrooms.
"What troubles me most is the certainty that right now in Dover…there are children endowed with potential to do good work in the fields of science," Leshner wrote. "But if they are confused about the nature of science, or if the science taught in their classrooms is distorted by an overlay of nonscientific values then they may never reach their full potential.
"In this age of global scientific and technological progress, we don't want our children to be stragglers. That would be a tragedy not just for the children, but for all of us."
Science and Policy
Malcom Named to National Election Reform Panel
Shirley Malcom, the head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, has been named to a high-powered commission convened by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III to develop reforms for America's troubled system of voting.
Malcom will join 17 other top political, civic, and academic leaders in a project that will explore the integrity and inclusiveness of the federal electoral process and the technology that supports it. After public hearings and input from a range of election experts, the Commission on Federal Election Reform is aiming to deliver its recommendations in September.
"Dr. Malcom is a distinguished, world-renowned scientist," said Robert A. Pastor, the commission's executive director and vice president of international affairs at American University. "Among the many issues that the commission will address are those that deal with electronic voting machines and those that deal with civic education. A scientist like Dr. Malcom, with such vast experience in education, will be invaluable."
Along with AAAS Science and Policy colleagues, Malcom organized a 2004 initiative that convened top scholars on elections and voting technology to evaluate a system that has come under fire in recent elections. The panel urged "a crash-course of study and reform to make election results more reliable by improving technology and creating better access for voters—especially those who have historically encountered serious impediments to voting."
"This is an incredible opportunity, but it's also an incredible responsibility," Malcom said. "There's a chance here to take what we've learned about voting technology, and also to look at the entire electoral system, and then apply what we know and what we will learn to the most fundamental exercise of democracy."
The Secret of Success in Math and Science
The conventional wisdom is pessimistic about student performance in math and science, but a new AAAS report explores 10 urban school districts where they achieved significant improvement.
Funded by the GE Foundation, the report found that sweeping, in-a-hurry reform plans are not likely to succeed. Instead, the authors say that success requires high goals, broad community support, and close monitoring of results over the long haul to assess what works and what does not.
The 22-page report, “A System of Solutions: Every School, Every Student,” identifies 10 U.S. K-12 school districts, serving some of the nation’s most disadvantaged inner-city regions, and discusses the systemic practices that helped them improve student performance and close the gap between minority and nonminority students.
The districts featured in the AAAS report are: Atlanta; Boston; Brownsville, El Paso, and Houston, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles; Miami; Portland, Oregon; and San Diego.
“There is some irony in the fact that major efforts at systemic reform were undertaken with populations and districts for whom the public has the lowest expectations,” the report concludes. “And yet, it anticipates the challenge that America must meet: to provide to the many, from a shifting demographic, the kind of high-level subject matter competence necessary for America’s future.”
To obtain a copy of “A System of Solutions,” e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Or view it online at www.aaas.org/programs/education/about_ehr/pubs.shtml.