’It’s crucial to preserve the integrity of research while making sure researchers can freely express themselves’

The involvement of scientists in public debate has become a central issue. A conference-debate that aims to explore the many facets of this subject is being organised on May 21st by COMETS, the CNRS ethics committee, and Éthique en Commun, the ethics committee of the Inrae, the Ifremer, the CIRAD and the IRD. The issues to be explored range from researchers’ freedom of expression to their responsibilities when defending a cause in public and also the way institutions deal with this question.

You are organising a day on the theme of ’The involvement of scientists in debates’. What are the objectives’

Christine Noiville: There are multiple objectives as the subject has been of particular concern to scientists since the health crisis, also factoring in the ongoing climate crisis. The fundamental question is to decide whether and define how scientists can take positions in public debates. Currently scientists are asking themselves whether they should take part, whether they have the possibility or even the duty to get involved and the risks this may entail for their credibility. The idea is to promote debate on such issues. COMETS and the Éthique en Commun Committee issued their opinions on the subject nearly simultaneously. We aim to put these into perspective, make them better known among the different scientific communities and discuss them with researchers.

This is even more pertinent because since Comets and the shared Ethics Committee expressed their positions, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has made the issue of researchers’ involvement in public debate particularly acute. Numerous research staff wished to express their points of view and this logically brought up the question of whether research organisations like the CNRS should intervene to provide ’guidelines’ for their researchers in such situations.

Michel Badré : It’s important to make it clear that the opinion ’Quels droits et devoirs pour les scientifiques et leurs institutions face à l’urgence environnementale ’’ 1 issued by the Éthique en Commun Committee was in response to a request from scientists themselves rather than a referral from the organisations’ directors or the committee itself which is very much a first! Our aim was to initiate in-depth discussion of the issue with the event helping to put the two opinions into perspective at a time when all research organisations are faced with such questions. To take the INRAE as an example, the agricultural crisis in France has highlighted tensions caused by discrepancies between the government’s decisions and the positions on the Ecophyto plan expressed by researchers and reported in the press. More broadly, the criticism expressed by the government and professional organisations like the FNSEA farmers’ union of the results of research by the ANSES (Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety) and the INRAE clearly means thought is required about these issues. How can we make sure researchers can fulfil their role and express themselves on the results of their work without being afraid of being judged or censored because their conclusions are not to the liking of other stakeholders’ We need to respond responsibly to this challenge.

Let’s return to the issues and challenges linked to scientific involvement in public debate. How has the subject evolved since it emerged publicly’

M.B.: The issue is much more important now we are dealing with phenomena linked to the ’global changes’ our society is facing such as climate upheaval, the erosion of biodiversity and the economic, social, environmental and geopolitical consequences of in these. This concerns all scientific disciplines - in the physical and natural sciences as well as the humanities and social sciences - because these challenges derive from the tensions between the human societies’ needs and the need to preserve the biosphere at all scales of time and space. It is essential to ensure science and society can dialogue on these issues as views in the field are currently sometimes ambivalently expressed. Politicians and the public say they expect science to express itself but then don’t always want to listen while on the other hand scientists would like to be listened to and understood better.

C.N.: In this period of much questioning, our aim is to remind people that scientists are allowed to support a cause and that all researchers have the freedom to express themselves if they so wish. They can give their point of view to make a useful contribution to public debate thanks to their informed knowledge. However, it’s also important to remember that specific responsibilities are involved. If researchers want debates they are involved in to be of high quality, they need to provide rigorous information indicating where they are speaking from and on behalf of whom along with details of their sources and the current state of scientific knowledge. It is crucial to re-assert both the rights and duties of researchers.

How are research organisations dealing with this issue’

C.N.: The CNRS launched a broad consultation involving its 28,000 scientists following the opinion of COMETS on the subject of scientists’ engagement. The objective is to establish a framework that protects, empowers, and encourages scientists to speak out in the public sphere, particularly in the media. A task force will soon be set up to produce a document for this purpose. The CNRS management is actively addressing the issue, which is a positive step

M.B.: Each of the four organisations the Éthique en Commun Committee represents has provided differing responses. For example, the INRAE worked with its teams to draw up a charter for public expression including guidelines and providing a framework for what can often be totally new situations for some people. This is a complex subject which cannot be entirely regulated by precise procedural guides. The CIRAD and the IRD are also working on these questions since the context in southern countries requires specific responses. The Ifremer has an interesting approach to dialogue between science and society involving a ’stakeholder committee’ for dialogue with its scientific teams.

How will the May 21st event be organised’

M.B.: A brief presentation of the opinions of our two committees will be followed by two session featuring a few brief experience reports from researchers and then discussions with the participants. The theme of the first session will be ’taking a position or neutrality - do we need to choose’’ with a discussion of what the idea of the ’neutrality’ of science really means and also what taking a position in public debate implies. The second session will look at the various forms of commitment to a position and the questions these bring up. Getting involved could mean communicating on scientific work, writing articles for the press, taking part in public events, demonstrations or even civil disobedience and so on. There will be time for discussion so participants can express their views.

C.N.: The event will take place both face-to-face and online. Researchers, directors of research institutions and laboratories will talking about the issue of commitment based on real-life examples they’ve encountered. For example, a laboratory director will talk about the tensions in his lab between people who call for clear-cut ’political’ positions (on glyphosate, soil artificialisation, etc.) to be taken and those who are opposed to or afraid of this. A example is a researcher working on GMOs who feels she can’t win in her work as a scientist because people on social media continually accuse her both of being too ’pro-GMOs’ and too ’anti’. She would like to know if and how her institution can support her. The aim is therefore to create a closer link between ethical research and researchers expressing themselves tangibly.

To follow the day by videoconference

    1 ’What are the rights and duties of scientists and their institutions in an environmental emergency situation’.