- American Physical Society Sites
- Meetings & Events
- Policy & Advocacy
- Careers In Physics
- About APS
- Become a Member
By Gregory A. Loew, Chair, APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists
The question of why the APS should support the Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS) as a standing committee is not a trivial one, and it is frequently asked, especially in times of tight budgets. As 1996 Chair of CIFS, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on this matter with our membership.
CIFS is a standing committee of the APS charged with monitoring the human rights conditions of physicists and other fellow scientists, and advocating for their freedom when it is threatened. According to its charge, "CIFS shall be responsible for monitoring concerns regarding human rights for scientists throughout the world; shall apprise the President, the Executive Board and Council of problems encountered by scientists in pursuit of their scientific interests or in effecting satisfactory communications with other scientists and may recommend to the President, the Executive Board and Council appropriate courses of action designed to alleviate such problems."
The committee was created in 1980 as an outgrowth of a POPA sub-committee. It was felt at the time that POPA by itself did not have the structure, time and resources to attend to human rights issues. CIFS functions with a Chair, Past-Chair, Vice-Chair and approximately eight volunteer members from various institutions throughout the U.S. Although CIFS formally meets only twice a year, it monitors, at all times, the human rights conditions of a multitude of scientists in the U.S. and worldwide.
When a case is brought to the committee's attention, the first step is to decide whether the scientist is truly a victim of discrimination and/or persecution. Since this is often not clear, CIFS sometimes begins by requesting information from the pertinent authorities, without taking a stand. This step alone has resulted in favorable action in some cases. In general, CIFS stays away from questions of tenure that are more appropriately handled elsewhere, unless these are related to issues of academic or scientific freedom or other such violations of due process of law. In countries other than the U.S. that enjoy democratic regimes, we sometimes consult first with the applicable domestic physical society to check whether it is aware of the case and has already assessed the issue at hand.
Once we have gone through these initial steps and determined that the scientist's situation falls within the Committee's guidelines for assistance, we then write letters of support for the individual and try to elicit answers from those organizations that have some control over his or her fate. In extreme cases where the individual is in physical danger, in jail or even tortured, official APS letters and petitions are sent to heads of state. At the early informational stages, the letter is signed by the CIFS Chair. When appropriate, the letter goes out with the signature of the APS President.
Two valid questions arise: (1) Why does APS take on such an activity, rather than just leaving it to specialized organizations such as, for example, Amnesty International? (2) Is CIFS successful? The two questions are linked. Historically, physicists and scientists in general, because of their contributions to knowledge and technology, have occasionally become well-known and held influential positions in society. Some of them have been mistreated or persecuted, simply because they belonged to some minority group against which discrimination already existed in general. Others, because of their prominence and occasionally their courage in opposing the status quo or refusing to support a regime that they deemed undemocratic and repressive, have taken great political risks, and some of them have ended in jail, exile and/or torture. The greater their moral courage, the harsher their punishment, but also the stronger their influence, and their ultimate chance of redress. We do not have to go very far back in history to remember Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Orlov, Anatoly Sharansky, Fang Li-zhi, and the Chinese physics student, Liu Gang who recently escaped from his country (see page 2). But we should not feel too self-righteous and smug in our traditionally democratic countries. We are not perfect either: just remember the McCarthy era!
But is CIFS effective? The answer is yes, and the reason is that we try to be objective and firm. Physicists all over the world are at the forefront of international communication, and most of them enjoy an intrinsic camaraderie and loyalty to their common field of endeavor. They like to work across national boundaries and collaborate on interesting problems. Statesmen and politicians know of our camaraderie, and in general they respect what we have to offer. So, if we behave ourselves objectively, we have some clout as a group and we can help our colleagues in distress. We get ample feedback in response to our advocacy. Even if CIFS members cannot prove that by ourselves, we have saved certain colleagues from jail, we know that our voice, alone, has helped many of them and in some cases has softened the punishment they received from their authorities.
With volunteers doing most of the committee's work and a small budget able to provide for only two one-day annual membership meetings, I firmly believe that this is a very cost effective and worthwhile cause. From a human point of view, it is a tradition that constitutes part of the conscience of our society. It is an opportunity for us physicists to do something in a constructive direction. We should not miss it. I hope I have convinced you to continue to support CIFS and to actively join us in the pursuit of this cause.
Gregory A. Loew is a professor and physicist at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
©1995 - 2017, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.