At its 2015 Annual Meeting, AAAS bestowed its 2014 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award on Omid Kokabee for his “steadfast courage in defending scientific freedom by refusing to participate in weapons-related research in Iran.” The decision to give Kokabee the award was announced in October 2014.
Kokabee, a 33-year-old Iranian graduate student in optics and photonics at the University of Texas at Austin, was arrested when he was in Iran visiting his family. Held in solitary confinement and not allowed to see his attorney prior to his court appearance, he was sentenced to ten years in prison in May 2012 on charges of “contact with enemy states” and other unsubstantiated claims. The charges arose after he repeatedly refused to participate in Iranian weapons research.
In prison, Kokabee taught classes in English and physics to his fellow prisoners. He initiated a series of discussions during which individuals could speak about anything they wanted to as long as it was “interesting” and in English. He also continued to write papers and submitted them for presentation at academic conferences. The meetings were eventually broken up, and Kokabee is now being held in dungeon-like facilities, where he is in poor health.
After numerous advocacy attempts, including letters from 31 Nobel Laureates and petitions with thousands of signatures, in October 2014 Iran’s Supreme Court announced it would review his case . In December 2014, that Court formally rejected the legality of his sentencing. However, in January 2015, the Iranian Revolutionary Court denied his appeal and upheld his ten-year prison sentence. On February 5, 2015, AAAS and the American Physical Society (APS) sent a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran calling for Kokabee’s immediate release.
Herbert Berk, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas, Austin, and Chair of the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, accepted the award on Kokabee’s behalf. He read remarks Kokabee had sent, in which Kokabee expressed his pleasure at being the recipient of this prestigious award.
In his statement, written from his prison cell, Kokabee explained his predicament. “I was only a scientific researcher. I was not involved in any political activities or held any political views. But they threatened to send me to prison for 10 years if I refused to cooperate in nuclear projects with certain organizations against my will.” He nevertheless chose to uphold the principle of the freedom of scientists to conduct research in the field of their choice and to refuse to participate in weapons research. Kokabee also described the opportunities and threats the advancement of science poses for the world. “On one hand, science and technology improves all aspects of humanity. On the other hand, unfortunately, governments, especially authoritarian and inhumane regimes, use science and technology to gain, maintain and impose power. Scientists face a double-edged sword between life and death. They can have a fundamental role in deciding in which direction their knowledge will be used.”
Kokabee urged scientists to ensure their research is used appropriately and not for destructive purposes.
“Ultimately my message to scientists, especially those of my generation, is that science and scientists are too important and powerful to be at the service of inhumane activities or to the consolidation of dictatorships. As scientists are the core of empowering humanity, it is the scientists who must courageously carry out their humanitarian responsibilities!”
In bestowing the award, AAAS noted that “It is uncommon that scientists risk their freedom in defense of the principle of scientific freedom for all scientists, and yet this 32-year old physicist, at the beginning of a promising career, has done just that.”
Established in 1980 and approved by the AAAS Board of Directors, the AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award honors scientists, engineers, or their organizations for exemplary actions that foster scientific freedom and responsibility. Previous award winners have been recognized for outstanding efforts to protect the public's health, safety, or welfare; to focus public attention on potential impacts of science and technology; to establish new precedents in carrying out social responsibilities; or to defend the professional freedom of scientists and engineers.