The Royal Society stands up for scientists’ academic freedom

08 December 2020

Refugee scientists help the Royal Society launch its new commitment to academic freedom at an online discussion on International Human Rights Day (10 December 2020).

The scientists will share their own experiences of abuses of academic freedom and identify what threats face the academic community today. They will also discuss the impact of nationalism, populism, and authoritarianism around the world on science; and how the Royal Society can help protect scientists in the UK and internationally.

The Society has produced a new statement (PDF) that defines the values and principles that will guide its response to cases where scientists’ human rights or ability to ethically carry out their work are at threat.

On the discussion panel, which is jointly hosted by Cara (the Council for At Risk Academics), will be:

  • renowned physicist, author and broadcaster, Jim Al-Khalili who had to abandon nearly all his possessions when he left Iraq two weeks before Saddam Hussein came to power
  • Dr Zaher Al-Bakour, who studies biomedical science in Aberdeen and came to the UK on a scholarship. Cara rescued Zaher from persecution in war-torn Syria, securing him a placement in Aberdeen and supporting his important post-graduate studies there
  • John Krebs the son of Nobel winner Hans Adolf Krebs who was sacked from his job as a chemist in Germany in 1933 because of his Jewish ancestry. John set up the Sir Hans Krebs Trust that supports Cara partly through the sale of his father’s Nobel medal
  • climatologist, Carlos Nobre who has spoken out against the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policies and the impact of nationalism on global science
  • geneticist, Veronica van Heyningen, who came to Britain as an 11-year-old after her family escaped from communist Hungary in 1958. Her Jewish parents were sent to Nazi concentration camps in the Second World War

Professor Richard Catlow, foreign secretary of the Royal Society, said: “We are deeply concerned about the number of scientists who are attacked because of their work or because their nationality, race, sex, language, religion or political beliefs are unacceptable to those in power.

“This new statement will help us, as the UK’s science academy, to uphold and champion academic freedom and guide our response to threats against the scientific community in the UK and around the world.

“Scientists must be free to use their knowledge and ability to benefit humanity. At a time when the world is looking to science to end the human and economic suffering from a global pandemic, it is more important than ever that scientists can work, teach and research without fear of suppression. Ethical science plays a critical role in the peace, prosperity and health of our world. An attack on scientific freedom is an attack on the future of humanity’s wellbeing.”

The annual analysis of attacks on higher education communities around the world by the Scholars at Risk Network tracked 341 incidents in 58 countries between September 2019 and August 2020. These include violence, imprisonment, prosecutions, restriction on academic travel, pressures on student expression and legislative and administrative threats to autonomy. 

The Royal Society is a member of the UK Academies Human Rights Committee. It receives alerts from the International Human Rights Network of Scholarly Societies about individual human rights cases that affect scientists.

Scientists who have received letters of support from the Society include Dr Bülent ??k, a Turkish food engineer. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison after a study he was involved in found cancer-causing chemicals in the food and water sources of three Turkish cities. Also, Professor Muntaser Ibrahim, the co-founder of the Sudanese Academy of Sciences who was detained by Sudanese security forces in early 2019.