The Work of ISC's Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science

The purpose of this online forum was to explain the structure and functioning of ISC's Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in Science (CFRS). There were two "copies" of the forum, on two successive days, to accommodate audiences in different time zones. I attended the second; there were 23 or 24 participants, including the ISC presenters. Recordings from both sessions are available at

The main presenter at my session was Saths Cooper, Vice-chair of CFRS; the discussion was moderated by Alison Meston from ISC.

The "four scientific freedoms" are high up in ISC's charter - #7 in the statutes. They are

  • freedom of movement
  • freedom of association
  • freedom of expression and communication
  • access to data and information

CFRS monitors individual and generic cases, and provides assistance. There is a larger committee and a small executive committee (Daya Reddy, Vivi Stavrou, Saths Cooper and Frances Vaughan). A presentation by Saths Cooper outlined the functioning of CFRS. The procedure begins with 

Identification of a potential case from media coverage, or referral by members, affiliates, or partner organizations. The issues may be complex, and things must be disentangled before CFRS makes a decision on whether to consider a case. The main considerations are that

  • the issue must be concerned with science, and the pursuit of scientific activities (that is, not a "human rights" case that happens to involve a scientist)
  • the ISC must want to take a public stand (as well as perhaps some non-public action)
  • there must be sufficient evidence

Cases not selected may be referred to other organizations.

Responses. These are determined on a case-by-case basis, and consider precedent to some extent, as well as the gravity, severity and threat to individuals of the situation. Responses include

  • letters, public and private
  • social media
  • public positions endorsed by ISC governing body.

CFRS also maintains liaisons with other networks such as the Committee of Concerned Scientists, Scholars at Risk Network, International Human Rights Network. It was emphasized that urgent cases (where someone's freedom or life is at stake) are difficult and involve consultations between the governing board, the core group, and the full committee.

Although the focus in my session was on threats to scientific freedom, the other half of the committee's mandate concerns responsibility in science: "the responsibility of scientists to maintain scientifically defensible conclusions, and of scientific institutions to apply high standards", as the committee's website states. That aspect was stressed more in the September 21 session.

In both sessions, two case studies were described in detail.

Case Study 1. This concerns ISC's general policy on boycotts of Conferences and Events. This case, brought to CFRS, involved a Russian mathematics graduate student, Azat Miftakhov who had been tried and jailed for political activity. ISC declined to get involved, on the grounds that this did not satisfy their first criterion, in that the abridgment of the scientist's freedom was based on non-scientific activity. However, the mathematics community got involved, and a call for a boycott of the ICM, scheduled for St Petersburg in 2022, was issued. Here the IMU protested, and the ISC issued a general statement opposing boycotts of scientific conferences, on the grounds that boycotts of events limit scientific cooperation. In a statement (May 2021) on their website, the ISC has explained their reasoning in detail: . (The statement does make clear that individual scientists are free to make their own decisions.)

Case Study 2. This case involved a Greek economist and statistician, Andreas Georgiou, who has been repeatedly charged (and repeatedly acquitted) for inflating Greece's deficit statistics from 2010 to 2015, but is now being harassed by the Greek government with ancillary civil judgments of "slander" and other charges. Here the CFRS did take up the case, and issued a detailed statement (August 24, 2021) . They have also undertaken other actions, communicating with the Greek government, and so on.

After the presentation of these two cases, the meeting was opened for discussion, moderated by Alison Meston.

A participant brought up a case where a scientist was denied a visa to attend an event in Canada (eventually resolved when the scientist decided it was not worth pursuing further). This was interesting because people do not generally think of Canada as a bad actor in the scientific freedom arena.

In the IMU case, it was suggested to ask the organizers to subscriber to ISC principles - for example, request that Miftakhov be allowed to attend the ICM.

Leiv K Sydnes, speaking for IUPAC, felt that a case of theirs had been well handled, but wondered how members find out about it. The answer is that statements are distributed to members (but Saths commented that members complain when they get too many messages). IUPAC is going to set up a committee, suggesting that we need better contact between unions and ISC. Vivi suggested that unions should initiate contact.

Helge Holden from IMU stated that he was disappointed that ISC had refused to act on the Miftakhov case, feeling that the IMU had been "left alone" on this. He noted that suggesting that IMU ask Russia to endorse the ISC principles "doesn't scale right": IMU runs the Congress without any direct assistance from Russia, and is not well-positioned to make demands. Alison commented that even if a country claimed to support the goals of CFRS, those goals are aspirational rather than actual. Saths stated his sympathy with the comment on being left alone. As a South African fighting apartheid he'd been there himself - in jail - but asked if the issue is politics or science. He added that the IMU could raise this at the GA in a few weeks, as a draft resolution on the part of the members, and he thought it would get support. One could offer a resolution for more active participation. He noted that some of the goals and practices of CFRS are 50 years old, and have not been reformulated since the last century. In particular, he felt they had "pussyfooted" on the matter of apartheid. On the other hand, recently CFRS has been effective with some countries on LGBTQ+ issues. It may be time to revisit when the committee should act.

Helge made an important comment on the role of the IMU itself: the IMU could require the host country to endorse the CFRS principles. He said it was too late to do so for the 2026 meeting, but they will do it for the 2030 meeting. IMU has not done this before. Saths also noted the interesting point that Russia relies on UNESCO, and suggested that IMU interact with UNESCO; Vivi said the CFRS has just started working with UNESCO. 

As a participant, I found the conversation engaging, and saw lessons in it for ICIAM. Anyone who is interested can watch the sessions at the CFRS's site:


Barbara Lee Keyfitz

Barbara Lee Keyfitz is Professor of Mathematics at The Ohio State University. She has a PhD from New York University, and works in the analysis of partial differential equations. She is a Past-President of ICIAM, and Editor-in-Chief of ICIAM Dianoia.