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The Role of Scientific Conferences and the Free Circulation of Scientists

[Phil Coppens] Phil Coppens

The triennial Congresses and the meetings organized by the IUCr Commissions are among the most important activities of the Union. Conferences are essential venues for the exchange of scientific ideas and the establishment of personal contacts. For young scientists they provide the first interaction with the broader scientific community, and the opportunity to expose new research results to the scrutiny of a critical audience. The Congresses of the IUCr with their Microsymposia and Open Commission meetings meet that expectation. They are lively and reflect the state of the art in a broad range of topics.

Apart from the formal sessions, informal encounters are invaluable. Many scientific developments have resulted from informal discussions. Inventions as important as gene splicing were reportedly sparked by such discussions.

It is therefore important that meetings are accessible to all bona fide scientists. It is often taken for granted, and fortunately common, that all those interested and able to pay the expense (and some who are not able to pay, which is why we have a Calendar Subcommittee) are able to attend a conference. Those discriminated against would be at a serious disadvantage in their profession. Yet, occasionally problems occur and vigilance is required. The International Council of Scientific Unions, ICSU, to which the IUCr belongs, strongly defends the importance of open attendance at meetings. It states in its advice to organizers of International Scientific Meetings that "scientific meetings must be open to any member of the scientific community without discrimination". It requires organizers of meetings to "ensure by all appropriate means that no bona fide scientists will be excluded". ICSU further recommends that "invitations from countries not in compliance be rejected for a five-year period or until the problems have been resolved".

Organizers of IUCr-sponsored meetings are asked to incorporate the ICSU Scientific Freedom Policy Statement in their main meeting circular. There have been periods in which IUCr sponsorship was denied for conferences in countries which at that time adhered to openly stated exclusionary policies. Very recently a crystallographic meeting was moved to a different country to avoid clear and admitted discrimination against part of the IUCr community.

The Scientific Freedom Policy does not imply that science does not have political relevance. There is abundant evidence to the contrary. The impact of scientific and technical knowledge on society is obviously one of the determining forces of history. Nevertheless, we as a Scientific Union have an obligation to be an open, uncensored society, committed to the unimpeded exchange of ideas. That requires our support for the Principle of Free Circulation of Scientists.

Philip Coppens
President, IUCr