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“Shooting a mosquito with a gun”: On the ‘right to science’ in times of war

In 2012, the Dutch High Court established that Iranian students could no longer be excluded from the attendance of Bachelor, Master and PhD programmes in nuclear energy and chemistry in Dutch universities. Iranian students were banned in 2008, following the strict interpretation by the Dutch government of the sanctions against Iran established by the relevant resolutions of the United Nations Security Council (among which resolutions 1737 and 1747). These included measures aimed at preventing Iranian citizens from gaining nuclear technology knowhow. The following ban of Iranian students from the relevant Dutch educational programmes had affected not only future admissions, but also PhD students who were already conducting research on nuclear technologies in Dutch universities.

The case was brought by Mr. Behnam Taebi, an Iranian scientist and former nuclear technology student who, by the time of the decision of the High Court, had become an Assistant Professor at the Delft University of Technology. “The government was shooting a mosquito with a gun”, said Taebi commenting on the sentence. “The measure does not have the desired effect, because knowledge can always be traded. I would rather advocate for individual screening.” 

Taebi’s case raised the critical question of the boundary between, on the one hand, the legitimate interest national governments have in preventing the spread of sensitive technologies and the duty they have to implement internationally adopted sanctions, and, on the other, the duty they have not to discriminate on the basis of nationality members of the scientific community. The recent invasion of Ukraine is bringing this question back to the center of the debate on the “right to science” and the “rights of scientists”.

Research agencies and the broad scientific community have been quick in condemning the invasion of Ukraine, and rightly so, given the unlawful resort to military force against a sovereign country. However, whether Russian scientists could and should be subject to indirect sanctions (by suspension of international research grants and of the related collaborations), or outright ban (by denying publication of scientific articles they authored),  are questions that deserve some deeper reflection. The risk of discrimination and regrettable decisions driven by emotions is concrete. 

This was the case of the decision of the University of Milan (Bicocca) to cancel a seminar on Fedor Dostoevsky led by Italian writer Paolo Nori. The decision was taken “to avoid any possible polemics in these delicate times”. The incident sparked a nation-wide debate on the risk of interpreting the harsh sanctions against Russia adopted by the international community and the Italian government as an excuse for expunging Russian arts from Italian educational and cultural programmes.

Another example of the risk of intentional or unintentional discrimination on the basis of nationality is the Boycott, Disinvest and Sanction (BDS) movement, launched in 2004 by members of the Palestinian civil society. Soon after its establishment, the call for joining the ‘academic BDS’ campaign reached virtually every scholar around the world. The campaign aimed at isolating Israeli universities as such, all considered complicit in the development of technologies and strategies relevant to the occupation of Palestinian territories. Regrettably, the campaign led to episodes of blunt discrimination against Israeli scientists in universities around the world. I have personally witnessed the refusal of a colleague to attend a meeting where two Israeli scientists had been invited because of her firm commitment to the BDS campaign. And that happened in Europe, not in an Arab country. 

Of course, my colleague has the right to have her opinions. However, by acting on them, she erected a wall. That is rarely better than building bridges, and it is certainly never the best option in the framework of scientific research. 

The “right to science” grounds scientific inquiry on two premises: its purpose is to foster peaceful and sustainable human development and its nature is intrinsically collaborative. Thus, while the suspension of the collaboration with Russian research agencies and of the exchange of funds and resources with Russian institutions is to be considered a legitimate and proportional measure, the indiscriminate boycott of Russian scientists by their international peers and international scientific journals is tantamount to shooting thousands of mosquitos with a gun, to use Taebi’s metaphor. Russian academics who, at their own risk, have joined forces and published open letters that condemn the invasion of Ukraine, risk becoming collateral damage, feeling possibly even more isolated and defenseless than they already are. 

Scientific inquiry cannot develop in isolation. Collaboration and exchanges are at the heart of science, and science must be at the service of peace. To satisfy human rights standards, boycotts must be narrowly tailored to target only those scientists who are actively undermining peace or threatening the human rights of others. Of course, it is difficult and onerous to screen each scientist before boycotting to ensure they are actually supporters and enablers of aggression and human rights violations. However, no scientific endeavor was ever less difficult and onerous.