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Committee on International Freedom of Scientists Combats Rights Violations Worldwide


By Kyler Kuehn

The Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS) is one of the many Committees appointed by the APS President to carry out the mission of the APS.  In the case of CIFS, that involves addressing situations where the human rights of scientists have potentially been violated, whether that violation is directly related to their scientific work or not. The most recent high-profile case that CIFS was involved in was that of Igor Sutyagin (see the August/September 2010 issue of APS News), but CIFS was active for many years prior to that as well. In the past, CIFS members had supported a Chinese scientist sentenced to 11 years in prison for attempting to found the China Democratic Party. At that time, CIFS members were able to contact the scientist’s family and attempt to visit him directly; the publicity CIFS brought to his situation in this manner is believed to have contributed to his improved treatment in prison and, eventually, his early release.

While these are two of the more recent “success stories,” there are many additional cases that CIFS is currently dealing with that are not as prominent. For example, in 2009, CIFS, along with many other academic and professional societies, wrote to the Spanish Ministry of Housing to protest the exclusion of a number of Israeli students who were prevented from participating in an international competition held in Spain. Since that time, CIFS has also worked to encourage the Israeli government to lift the travel restrictions on other students who have been prevented from traveling outside of Israel/Palestine to continue their education. CIFS has also sought the removal of sanctions brought by the European Union against an Iranian scientist whom the EU claims is involved in illicit nuclear programs within Iran, but whom CIFS believes to be “blacklisted” erroneously. CIFS has also been monitoring the situation in Turkey that developed in 2009, in which a scientific publication removed articles and references to Darwin and evolution, and disciplined the editor in charge of that publication. The APS (along with many other scientific societies and prominent individual scientists) voiced their concern over this action; and though the publication has planned a future edition to focus on such topics, it is not clear as of APS News press time whether that edition has yet been published.

While most of the cases CIFS deals with are outside the US, it may surprise many APS members that CIFS is actively involved in cases within the US as well. One recent case involved the alleged improper transfer of sensitive information from a US scientist to a foreign national–in this case, a subordinate working on research with that scientist. While the APS International Affairs office has worked for many years to clarify the nature of exports and the regulations surrounding them, CIFS is also teaming with the APS Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA) to ensure that any student (especially foreign students) in potentially sensitive situations are aware of the restrictions that the US Government has placed upon their access to certain knowledge and technology. Furthermore, CIFS is partnering with FGSA on a number of other projects, including the publication of a document detailing graduate students’ “rights and responsibilities” within the university environment. CIFS has also offered feedback to FGSA on a forthcoming survey regarding the climate of departments and universities with respect to gender and sexual diversity.

Additionally, CIFS works with several other larger human rights organizations, including Scholars at Risk and the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition. The former helps displaced scientists into new positions where their skills can be utilized, and the latter includes a working group on the welfare of scientists with whom CIFS has been cooperating.

All of this work is carried out by a small group who have volunteered to serve on CIFS. APS members can help CIFS by telling their colleagues about it so that those who may experience violations of their rights will know of this avenue for assistance. They can also report human rights violations to CIFS by contacting Michele Irwin, International Affairs Program Administrator, at mirwin@aps.org and can find information regarding joining the “Friends of CIFS” network on the CIFS page of the APS website. Finally, APS members can consider serving on the committee themselves–new positions on CIFS are filled every year by volunteers from within the APS.

Kyler Kuehn is a member of the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists. He is in the High Energy Physics Division at Argonne National Laboratory.


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