The Conscience Clause: Keeping the Independent Scientist Extant
By Henri-Philippe Sambuc and Frédéric Piguet
The few scientists who have had the courage to oppose their employers' silence regarding the harmful effects of products related, for instance, to food, public health, or the environment, have generally seen their lives destroyed. Defamation campaigns, threats, legal actions, and various pressures have made their careers, family lives, and health miserable.
Science is a complex intellectual exercise based, most notably, on individual freedom and free will. Only other scientists can assess the intellectual findings of their limited group of peers who are capable of understanding a given issue. Thus, scientists represent a special, tight-knit community within society, a self-appointed group whose work is scrutinized by peers and made public by recognized scientific publishers. The modern legacy of science and its legitimacy is mainly the result of the following basic premise: Scientists are responsible people because they are independent and what they say is true.
However, stories about fraud in scientific research or the theft of colleagues' or students' data are not uncommon. Moreover, professors who serve private interests are being appointed to public committees, and it is not unusual to see political pressure being brought to bear on scientific institutions. Differences in opinion among scientists about the ethics and values at stake in evaluating various technological risks fuel scientific controversies despite the fact that few scientists are prepared to deal with these issues and thus offer an independent perspective. Finally, there is the issue of some products on the market misusing scientific discoveries, putting public health and the environment at risk and misleading the public about the relevance of certain political issues.
Often, scientists who are most respectful of ethical issues become discouraged and leave the profession. Those who remain usually do not control the intellectual rights to their discoveries and their employee status prevents them from saying "no." Scientists who prefer to follow their conscience are sometimes forced to act contrary to the interests of their employers; as a result, they step into a nightmare that can transform, and often destroy, the rest of their lives. Can one accept that those scientists who seek to remain free and independent be treated as criminals? How can one re-create an environment for science and scientists that offers enough space for independence and the ability to follow one's conscience?
Scientists are not ordinary whistleblowers. The sophistication and the social impact of their efforts mean that specific tools must be created to protect them when they express their doubts about misleading scientific information. Civil society and the scientific community must fight to establish the special legal status necessitated by the vital role scientists' independence plays in scientific research and application. Scientists who have the courage and determination to exercise their responsibility to science itself and to society as a whole have an undisputed right to be praised, cherished, and thanked. The public can rely only on scientists and engineers who exercise their freedom of speech and who can understand and integrate society's values into their assessment of technological risks.
The Fondation Science et Conscience and the Association for the Promotion of Scientific Accountable Behaviour, both of which are located in Geneva, are promoting, as a partial answer to this worrisome situation, an international convention on protecting a scientist's right to say "no" when products are sold in the marketplace, despite potential risks for public health, food, and the environment.
The Conscience Clause Convention (www.apsab.span.ch/clc/) aims to re-establish a certain equilibrium between a specific group of employees (scientists and engineers) and public or private employers through an appropriately defined set of controls.
Society needs to restore the freedom of the individuals whose intellectual creativity, knowledge, and ethical awareness shape our future. This mission faces two challenges: to make the public understand that the independence of this small group is the only way to protect itself, and to convince individualistic scientists to be involved more collectively in social issues. Scientific groups and international organizations, such as UNESCO, which is involved in scientific issues, and the International Labour Organization, which promotes workers' rights, should join forces and support these efforts.
Henri-Philippe Sambuc is President of the Fondation Science et Conscience, and Frédéric Piguet is the Executive Secretary for the Association for the Promotion of Scientific Accountable Behaviour.