A timely commentary appeared in Nature recently [(2003) 421, 314] debating whether a scientific boycott is ever justified. Colin Blakemore, Richard Dawkins, Denis Noble, and Michael Yudkin, of the University of Oxford, uphold the tenets of the International Council of Science (ICSU, www.icsu.org), which expressly forbid such discrimination. The principle of the ‘universality of science’, according to the ICSU, “entails freedom of association and expression, access to information, and freedom of communication and movement in connection with international scientific activities without any discrimination on the basis of such factors as citizenship, religion, creed, political stance, ethnic origin, race, color, language, age, or sex”. But how aware is the general scientific community of this axiom, and how widely is it accepted?

One of the basic principles of the scientific endeavor, however loosely adhered to in practice, is that a discovery is independent of the scientist’s personal and political proclivities. Scientists continue to collaborate and cooperate pretty much regardless of geographical and political boundaries — a symbol of and impetus for the breaking down of political divisions, say Blakemore and his coauthors. The principle of universality seeks to prevent scientists becoming pawns in political games.

But the sharing of scientific knowledge and expertise that scientists take for granted can, under some circumstances, become a source of concern for governments. The US, in particular, has relied on immigration to fulfill its personnel requirements in science, technology, and engineering. Now, however, concerns about homeland security and terrorism mean that universities and other research organizations are having to prepare for additional checks and monitoring of foreign staff. And if immigration numbers start to fall, how will employers be able to make up the shortfall in expert staff? Not necessarily from a pool of home-grown talent, if recent research from the University of Washington is to be believed. According to William Zumeta and colleagues, top US graduates are increasingly rejecting careers in science and technology (www.nap.edu/issues).

Scientific societies have an important role to play in all this, as Alex King alludes to in his interview in this issue (on page 64). One of his roles as president of the Materials Research Society was to enable this international community of scientists by helping foreign scientists to attend meetings and conferences. Providing a forum for the sharing of scientific ideas is of vital importance, particularly where other opportunities may be lacking. The recent inaugural meeting of the Africa Materials Research Society drew together over a hundred scientists from 24 countries and included discussions between the governmental research agencies of Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and the US on possible future collaborative work. A move such as this, especially in the current climate is to be greeted as good news.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)00301-8