Speech at the EU Preparatory meeting of the Third World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research

Some of you have been following the World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research for almost ten years, while for others this is the first time. Marco Pannella, leader of the Nonviolent Radical Party, is to thank for providing the idea for this scheme. It was put together in the weeks when we were beginning to organise a referendum in Italy to abolish the law banning scientific research on embryos. This was not just an Italian issue, but a global one. In Europe, there was much debate over the possibility of being able to gain access to European funding for research on embryonic stem cells. At the UN, Costa Rica, Italy and other countries, attempted to rally support for a worldwide ban on the so-called therapeutic cloning. The idea, put forward by Marco Pannella at the time, referred to the historic precedent of the post-war Congress for Cultural Freedom, which had gathered together some of the greatest and best-known intellectuals, artists and scientists, united against the dangers of totalitarianism.

At that moment in history, we spoke of the danger and threat of all types of fundamentalism – whether religious or ideological – which were opposed to science and to freedom of research. The aim of the meeting in Brussels is to identify the urgent need for the freedom of research and for freedom in the broader, more general sense. As noted by Guy Verhofstadt, freedoms are not to be divided or cut into pieces. It is not merely a matter of repeating what you all know well, that is to say, the importance of science, research, and human well-being. It is also a matter of addressing, or finding another possible solution for the crisis of democracy and of the rule of law. Perhaps this is the difference compared to ten years ago. Then, we wanted to use politics and the law to defend the freedom of research and science.

Today, ten years later, we must also ask ourselves the opposite question: how science can be used to defend democracy and the rule of law. The need to defend democracy and the rule of law has been confirmed by many indicators. A study by the European Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveals that only four out of ten citizens trust national authorities in OECD countries. There is also the question of the legitimacy and authority of political powers over citizens. Needless to mention the economic and social crisis we are currently experiencing. One of the premises of this meeting is that science can be used to strengthen democracy, to prevent democracy from sinking even deeper into its current crisis.

How could science be able to help democracy? Firstly, because it is based on facts, trial and error. One of the things of which democracy is accused today is being no longer connected with the citizens’ basic needs. Another aspect of the crisis of this democratic method is the inadequacy on a national level, that is to say, Nation-states proving incapable of addressing the crisis. There is nothing more transnational than science, the results of which are to be spread throughout the world.

Moreover, there is another significant historical connection between democracy and science: one of the documents giving rise to the rule of law was the Magna Charta in the thirteenth century. It was this that brought about the objection to the absolute power of the British monarchy. Its key element was the so-called habeas corpus, according to which no one shall be deprived of liberty in the absence of law. The motto of our World Congress is “from the body to the body politic”, that is to say, from the needs of the body – health, well-being, etc. – to the heart of politics. This motto must be followed by institutions, starting with citizens’ most basic needs. And it must be done in accordance with the rule of pragmatism, trial and error, taking care not to manipulate the evidence and facts, and striving to improve human well-being.

The Luca Coscioni Association is promoting this meeting, along with the Radical Party, a non-violent party, following the example of Gandhi – of those who questioned their own body to gain freedom. It is a transnational party, so it does not consider national borders to be useful for addressing certain types of problems. It is a transparty: we do not wish to work with one political family or one political leaning, but rather with all those in institutions that share secular goals.

Ten years ago, we were working very hard to see how political power could help effective science. Today, on top of this, we have an additional objective: to see how effective and free scientific research can help political power. Indeed, scientific and technological developments are making very rapid headway. The challenge is to provide a democratic political power, which interacts with the scientific community and which is accountable to citizens, while respecting the rules to avoid abuses of power and oppression. Alternatively, if democratic States and federations, such as the European Union, do not intervene, research will move increasingly into geographical areas of the world where it is being done by undemocratic powers. The risk is that the liberal and democratic model of the rule of law will be defeated.

This is not a mere convention and intellectual debate: it is home to political initiatives and is able to gather together scientists, researchers, politicians, the sick, disabled people and citizens. This can be done using democratic and legal instruments.

For the Luca Coscioni Association and the Radical Party, Filomena Gallo has been following the case made before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against Costa Rica, in that it is a country that prohibits artificial insemination. One must stress, however, the limitations that Nation-states and supranational entities have when intervening to ensure freedom of research and access to treatment, where Nation-states do not. For instance, the European Court of Human Rights has intervened many times against the laws in Italy that prevented access to certain techniques used for assisted fertilisation. That is why it is important that action be taken at the level of the European Union to do what many researchers and scientists have begun to call for: the creation of a real European Research Area, where researchers and academics can move freely, making Europe a single homeland for scientific research. Siina, an Iranian researcher working in Italy, explains the difficulties he experiences with renewing residence permits and the unbelievable waiting times to move within Europe. The goal of freedom of research is also a European goal, to have a Europe of research that is as united as possible, a Europe with access to medicine and treatments with shared rules. We know, for example, how difficult it is to enforce these rules in clinical trials. Perhaps our network, as a community of scientists, could help to call on Nation-states to be less resistant to simplifying clinical trials.

With regard to open access to science, I ask whether it is necessary to intervene by using legislation and regulation to promote the free movement of results and scientific knowledge, or indeed if open science may be established without the need for regulatory intervention. Some suggest that when research is conducted with public money, there must also be some sort of legal obligation to keep the results of that research available in the public domain. For me, this is a reasonable suggestion, which is worthy of discussion.

On the subject of patents, we must clearly consider not only the interest of the researcher or the institution where he or she works, but also the interest of citizens’ health and well-being. One concern is the duration of the patent. With an increased pace of scientific research, an extended patent period may be a significant obstacle. Public administration should be left with the option to intervene, should there be a predominant collective interest, which is greater than the commercial interests of those holding the patent for that invention. There should be a way to “compensate” inventors and put their research into the public domain. One of the questions to be asked is: to what extent is an overly rigid system likely to overly bureaucratise scientific research?

These topics and others will be discussed at the next meeting of the World Congress, taking place in Rome from 4 to 6 April.