AAAS Adopts Statement Binding Scientific Freedom with Responsibility

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AAAS underscores in a new statement the right of the world’s scientific community to freely pursue research and discovery in the interest of humanity, all the while recognizing the duty of each scientist to embrace and abide by high ethical standards. | AAAS

The freedom to pursue science, apply its findings and share its discoveries is linked to the obligation of the scientific community to conduct its work with integrity and keep the interest of humanity as a core tenet, according to a new statement adopted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Board of Directors.

The AAAS Board of Directors adopted the “Statement on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility” on Oct. 12 to govern the organization, its members and guide scientists across the globe – the first known such position adopted by a scientific organization, according to members of the AAAS committee that developed the statement.

“Scientific freedom and scientific responsibility are essential to the advancement of human knowledge for the benefit of all. Scientific freedom is the freedom to engage in scientific inquiry, pursue and apply knowledge, and communicate openly,” the statement says. “This freedom is inextricably linked to and must be exercised in accordance with scientific responsibility. Scientific responsibility is the duty to conduct and apply science with integrity, in the interest of humanity, in a spirit of stewardship for the environment, and with respect for human rights.”

The four-line statement is meant to be a lasting and widely applicable affirmation, recognizing that freedom necessary to extend the global scientific enterprise requires the scientific community to adhere to and apply high ethical standards, interlocking two longstanding pillars of science.

“The conduct of science – with the multiple benefits it delivers – depends on the freedom to pursue science in the directions it leads, and the expectation that science will be conducted in a responsible manner,” said Barbara Schaal, chair of the AAAS Board of Directors and professor of biology and dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “Such formal statements help underscore the need for freedom and responsibility in science and set a benchmark for other organizations to develop their own statements.”

Coinciding with adoption of the statement, AAAS also unveiled on Oct. 18 a corresponding online resource portal where anyone interested can find topical information for seminars, group discussions or references for policymaking efforts. The site provides an extensive list of related websites and foundational articles that trace the origin and development of the statement.

Melissa Anderson, chair of the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility and professor of higher education at the University of Minnesota, said the two principles go hand in hand. “You don’t see one without the other,” Anderson said. “They both need to be present whenever you have scientists doing their work or scientists deliberating how work should be done. They are equally important and must be linked together.”

Jessica Wyndham, interim program director of AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, agreed. “For the scientific endeavor to flourish you cannot separate the freedom indispensable for scientific research, collaboration and communication from the responsibilities of scientists to conduct their work ethically, with integrity and for the benefit of humanity,” she said.

The statement is highlighted on the website, where it is available in eight languages. Accompanying the statement is an acknowledgment that AAAS understands the environment in which the statement is being released. It recognizes the daily competitive, political, economic and institutional pressures scientists and engineers confront, forces that it acknowledges are colored by the many cultures in which scientists and engineers work.

The introductory comments explain that the statement is intended “to promote discussion about scientific freedom and scientific responsibility in the context of everyday work.” To that end, the site provides a downloadable poster of the new statement to make it easy to display in laboratories and workplaces.

The site also presents extensive resources, which will continue to be updated, including related Science articles dating to 1949 and a list of winners of the annual AAAS Scientific Freedom and Scientific Responsibility award that recognizes leadership in the area.

Drafting and adoption of the statement was nearly three years in the making. It replaces a 1975 report authored by the late John T. Edsall, a professor of biochemistry at Harvard University and the chair of the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, which has continued its work since its founding in 1970.

The 40-page Edsall Report, as it is commonly referenced, did not define scientific freedom nor scientific responsibility and only implicitly stated that the two issues are “basically” connected – a posture largely accepted at the time.

The Edsall Report presented in detail instances in which scientific freedom and responsibility had been called into question, including the use of defoliants and herbicides by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, the safety of nuclear power plants and the abuse of psychology for torture.

The report led AAAS to establish two influential programs that were more recently collapsed into the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and the Law program. The programs have helped apply the knowledge of science and engineering in multiple spheres, including forensic anthropology, innovative genetic testing, statistical analysis and geospatial technology. The efforts have collected evidence of mass executions, reunited children separated from their families and tracked the destruction of cultural heritage sites in partnerships with non-profit organizations and human rights organizations dealing with atrocities across the globe.

AAAS also responded to the Edsall Report by incorporating into its constitution in 1977 the mission of “fostering scientific freedom and responsibility.”

As time passed, though, the Edsall Report proved insufficient in addressing scientists and engineers who defy the scientific method, just as it was found ineffective in dealing with overly stringent rules or regulations that serve only as barriers to “the freedom of science to pursue science wherever it goes,” said Anderson.

“The image I have in mind is that scientific freedom and scientific responsibility are two members of any scientific research team and they sit on every committee that has to do with the development of scientific administration or policy,” Anderson added. “They are two sides to one coin.”

In 2015, on the 40th anniversary of the Edsall Report, the committee began the task of rethinking the report and producing a single statement to more clearly unite scientific freedom and scientific responsibility.

At the outset, the group undertook a thorough review to determine if any scientific organizations or societies had combined the two topics into a single declaration. The review, which encompassed wide-ranging consultations with leaders in the area, discovered no statement merging scientific freedom and scientific responsibility across science and engineering.

“One of the people we consulted was the former chair of the committee, one of my predecessors, and his response was ‘If not AAAS, who?’” said Anderson.

The statement grew out of global consultations and information-seeking sessions with the AAAS Board of Directors, the Council and AAAS affiliate organizations.  Multiple panel meetings were held around and during the 2015, 2016 and 2017 AAAS Annual Meetings.

Six one-hour panels, for instance, heard from representatives of the National Institutes of Health, the Korea Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity, European Commission, graduate students, and the National Academies of Science Committee on Human Rights at a session during the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting.

“This statement, grappling with two key concepts in science, linking them together, and doing so in such a clear and simple way, will contribute to its longevity and its significance,” said Wyndham. “Those attributes will allow the statement to transcend the specifics of current debates and developments in science and technology, and ensure its enduring value.”

[Associated image: National Institutes of Health’s Office of Intramural Training & Education/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)]