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Scientific diplomacy and cooperation in this time of war

- Nithaya Chetty

Scientific diplomacy must be given a chance to help enhance mutual understandings across political divides.

As the vice-president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) responsible for membership matters, I have been involved in formulating a position for the IUPAP about scientific cooperation with Ukraine and with Russia in this extremely difficult time of war.

Interestingly, IUPAP is in its centennial year, and South Africa was one of only 13 founding members of the union that committed to a global agenda for physics ahead of many more scientifically advanced countries of that time, which I think is remarkable.

Jan Smuts was prime minister of the Union of South Africa at that crucial time following World War I, but he had the vision for science as a catalyst for peace, and this remains truer today than ever before.

A global, communicative, collaborative, and cooperative community for science is of paramount importance for critical, evidence-based thinking and discourse as it impacts on human lives and on our planet with existential proportions, and increasingly now we should think about our interests in space as well.

The IUPAP, during the darkest days of the cold war, apartheid and many other difficult political eras over the past 100 years, has always been able to do two things with care and responsibility.

Firstly, the global physics community has kept open the channels for scientific cooperation across all political and other divides, including with apartheid South Africa, in the hope and expectation that enhanced scientific collaborations are an important means to develop improved understandings between different peoples that contribute to world peace.

Secondly, and it has also at various times in its history expressed its concerns about any activity or intervention, including war, that impacts negatively on our ability to engage scientifically on a global scale.

It is entirely appropriate, then, that IUPAP has issued its statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which I am very glad to have had a hand in.

On the other hand, I think it would be inappropriate for the international science community to bar any scientist from any scientific activity, including in this time of war.

So long as the work upholds the ethics and principles of science of the highest ideals, for example, the endeavour does not contribute to weapons capabilities or does not enhance in any way Russia’s war effort, I can see no reason to disallow Russian scientist participation in international scientific activities.

Many Russian academics are standing up to the Russian government under extremely difficult circumstances, and it would be remiss of us to leave them out in the cold.

Scientific diplomacy must be given a chance to help enhance mutual understandings across political divides, a point that I will come to again below.

What about academic freedom?

But the real matter, in the context of my views above, that I would like to address in this commentary relates to the news report from South Africa published in University World News roundup titled ‘Government tells science agencies not to comment on Ukraine’ in the context of my views above.

If this statement is, indeed, an official government statement, and I have my doubts as to how high up the political chain this comes from, then of course this is counterproductive as this does not advance peace, and neither does this advance science, with mutually destructive consequences.

This is damaging to our own science system in our country, to our reputation for critical, independent thinking, and only serves a narrow political purpose and should, therefore, be rejected.

It is not clear to me who issued this statement, but whoever gave this instruction very likely knows that this is an unsatisfactory statement for the well-being of the South African academic community which aspires for the highest ideals of integrity and independence, principles that are essential for the success of the academic endeavour in our country.

It is meant to throw doubt in the minds of academics. It sets us back as a nation. It should be countered.

Academic vs political discourse

I am writing this commentary in my personal capacity, and I don’t expect that my university or the government will come knocking at my door asking awkward questions, the types of experiences that many have had during the height of apartheid and in other autocratic regimes around the world since practically all of time.

Before I go on, I think it is useful, especially in an academic setting, to distinguish a little more carefully between academic discourse and political discourse.

The academic process ideally is based on independent, critical thinking, on evidence-based research, on reproducibility of results, on pursuing the facts, on unearthing the truth, on not seeking favours, on interrogating ideas rather than which office or hierarchical structure this comes from, and so on, and so on.

Political discourse, on the other hand, is a different type of conversation, and it is seeping more and more into our science spaces, with negative consequences.

It is often based on group mentality, on populism, on expedience, on convenience, sometimes on exploitation, often on untested ideas, usually on emotion, and it is often a power struggle.

The concepts of a quid pro quo usually loom large in a political conversation, which is often based on short-term interests for short-term gain.

Much of it is inconsistent, even at the best of times. The result can be divisiveness which is difficult to counter in an academic setting that thrives on mutual respect, personal courage and an environment that respects the circulation of ideas.

So, my first reaction in considering the flawed government statement is to encourage academics to speak up on any matter in your personal capacity based on your conscience, based on principles of democracy, of fairness, of integrity, on solid evidence, on history, on precedence and so on.

This is not only our right to do so, but also our obligation as citizens of a democratic country.

You should expect and even encourage rebuttals to your views, and you should be open to criticism and other viewpoints based on cogently argued standpoints.

And this should happen in an open, transparent, and collegial manner. There is absolutely nothing controversial about this as I describe the environment that is essential for science to thrive in, which is needed for societal benefit.

This environment cannot be regulated by politicians, and it would be dangerous for our democracy if there are attempts to do this. Here, we need to better understand the role played in science diplomacy as different from political diplomacy as alluded to earlier.

Democracies need independent checks and balances to function successfully, or else we will spiral into a morass.

Our South African Constitution fully protects us as academics to speak up on any matter of relevance to society as long as we adhere to high standards of ethics in our work. The smartest way to do this in these times of political over-sensitivities is to do so in your personal capacity.

There are interesting, and often sobering intersections between academic discourse and political discourse, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. But I grudgingly admit that both discourses are needed for societies to function, and the tension between the two is necessary.

Having addressed the responsibilities of individual scientists to speak up, I wish now to turn my attention to scientific organisations.

Institutions should also speak up

I can see how institutions, government agencies and, national laboratories, among others, can have a difficulty in stepping up to the plate to publicly make their views heard at an institutional level for it takes a lot of courage to seemingly bite the hand that feeds you, and there can be unpredictable consequences if you do so.

With South Africa being a member of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the quid pro quo is clear for all to see. The ANC also has a strong allegiance to the former Soviet Union because of the struggle years, as many of our leaders were in exile in Russia.

I feel that, even if we do not accept the position taken by the South African government, we should at the very least understand this position considering the politics of the day.

This is, nevertheless, an embarrassment to us as scientists and makes a mockery of the many Russian scientists, both within and outside that country, who have risked so much to make a stand.

Institutions should be able to speak candidly about any activity or intervention, including war, that impacts negatively on the ability to achieve their mission of engaging science on an international scale in an unencumbered way.

Put simply, it is not in the interests of our institutions to remain silent on any matter that degrades our international scientific cooperation. We have collaborations with Ukrainian scientists, for instance, and so why should our scientific institutions not express concerns at any efforts that undermine this?

Silence on the part of individual academics or our scientific institutions at this time is not helpful. I don’t think that we should be cowed into submission. It is useful for us to prick the conscience of those who are pushing this flawed point of view to get them to see their error of judgment.

Having said this, I also cannot blame any colleague who chooses to remain silent on this matter at this time. There can be a heavy price to pay if we stand up for what we believe in, as history shows.

But, if more people of conscience choose to do so, bravely, and no matter the consequences, then this world could be a better place.

Every academic and every researcher in South Africa, irrespective of their affiliation, must fiercely protect our spaces for free intellectual thought, unfettered by the politics of the day, which is of short-term interest for short-term gain. Politicians have a near-sightedness that we should try to understand, even if we do not accept.

Professor Nithaya Chetty is the Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. In his book, The Struggle for the Soul of a South African University, co-authored with Christopher Merrett, he articulates the principles that he has championed in the fight for academic freedom in South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

This article was first published in University World News.