The interaction between science and politics is complex

How should science and politics interact? The combination is a difficult one. Scientists must have freedom of opinion and expression and politics should be kept out of the lab. But science has a huge role to play in informing and influencing governments.

The Association of University Teachers’ (AUT) decision, in April, to boycott two Israeli universities - Haifa University, which it accused of restricting the academic freedom of staff, and Bar-Ilan University, which has a college in the disputed settlement of Ariel - went against the basic principle of academic freedom.


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The International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, which aims to promote free exchange of ideas among scientists in all countries, is against moratoria of this kind. It published a statement supporting scientific exchange in 2002, prompted by a petition advocating a moratorium on grants and contracts to Israel from European research institutions.

Many other institutions voiced their opposition to the AUT’s stance, including the UK’s Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the US.

The AUT has now wisely changed its mind, saying that it wants to ’build bridges’ and support those ’working for peace’.

Science can also support developing countries. The G8 nations’ science academies have warned that attempts to tackle some of Africa’s most pressing problems will fail unless developed countries help to build science in Africa. Many of the country’s challenges, such as providing clean water and overcoming the spread of diseases like malaria and AIDS, rely on science.

Science capacity in Africa needs to be built up. African scientists need to feel supported with sufficient networking with scientists outside the country for them to want to continue to work at home. Short-term aid, such as a vaccination programme, needs to be supported by programmes to develop infrastructure, in this case to enable African scientists to research and manufacture their own drugs. Scientists also have a duty to share their knowledge and evidence with governments to inform policy decisions. And governments should be receptive to this advice.

The UK government says its policy on BSE has always been based on the best available scientific advice. ’The need for a firm scientific basis for decisions...has been recognised by the UK government since the early stages of the epidemic,’ it says. However, at the time many felt the government wasn’t listening.

Climate change is another issue in which scientists and politicians are deeply involved. The G8 nation’s science academies believe there is now enough scientific evidence on climate change for governments to take prompt action. They ’can no longer use uncertainty about aspects of climate change as an excuse for not taking urgent action to cut greenhouse emissions,’ says Robert May, president of the Royal Society.

Overcoming the threat from climate change worldwide will need both technical solutions and government policies. Scientists and politicians will both need to play a role.

Karen Harries-Rees, editor