HEAL UoS

How and why do we value scientific freedom?

In 2014, Conferences, Gratuitous self-promotion, Publications on April 7, 2014 at 12:54 pm

With teaching over, it’s good to have a bit of time for writing and going to conferences. I’ve just got back from a trip to Rome, where I attended the third meeting of the World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research. The meeting is a key event hosted by the Luca Coscioni Association, which aims to eradicate undue bars to science and innovation. With Simona Giordano and Marco Cappato, I edited a book on Scientific Freedom following the first of these Congresses. As well as existing in hard copy, it is available here open access.

The Congress that just took place focused on the relationship between science and politics. In my own paper, I raised issues about the central place that the public interest should take in our analyses and evaluations of scientific freedom. This cuts against some of the received wisdoms amongst members of the scientific community, who are wary of the public interest (or in related literatures on the national interest). The wariness is born of concerns that the public interest will simply be given as a dogmatic, knock-down argument against good science, with no sound rationale behind it. Whilst we should be alive and responsive to such concerns, if we are to advance scientific programmes, we also need to be able to explain how these serve the public interest.

Scientific freedom is not just a ‘negative right’; a right to be left alone (and even in instances where it is, it can still impose positive claims and costs on the State and others). And really, advocates for scientific freedom are anyway asking governments not only to permit, but also to protect and indeed promote science. In doing this, we see important roles for law and regulation, providing both a shield, where defences are needed of scientific activity, and a stage, where publicity and education are needed. In my paper, I aimed to capture the reasons for this, and to explain that those in the scientific community need to understand why the public interest may at times legitimately constrain, as well as advance, science.

The event in its entirety was quite intense, with a great range of speakers and papers. Although it was built around a shared agenda, there was nevertheless a fascinating variety of perspectives. Furthermore, the span of insights afforded was astounding. Speakers included scientists and other academics, but also activists, politicians, people working in policy, journalists, and jurists. I left with a sense that many of the practical upshots of the meeting will arise as individual developments. ‘Science’ is vast and varied. But the general movement, and the added momentum that can be found when people with associated interests come together, will add to the power of such developments.

John Coggon

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