Science and scientific culture are, at least starting from the Renaissance, the most effective system of knowledge man has invented for promoting his material and moral well-being. It is impossible to imagine the economic, social and cultural development of the western world without science. Above all it is impossible to imagine a maturing of critical thought feeding western democratic and liberal traditions. Science has shown the practical value of freedom, tolerance and respect for the truth, on which liberal democracies were founded.
From the days of Galileo Galilei we have understood that the scientific method and the knowledge it produces enter almost naturally in conflict with common sense beliefs, religious traditions and political ideologies. Historically, even after Galileo, there were various attempts to censor freedom of thought and research. These attempts produced tragic consequences for many people – not just scientists – and a heavy economic, social and cultural movement backward for those countries that ideologically conditioned scientific research.
For several decades there has been an unreasonable attack going on in the western democratic world, towards research and application development in the fields of molecular genetics and cell biology, which are judged harbingers of threats to man or the environment. Heated controversy has begun on genetically modified organisms in agriculture, on procedures of genetic diagnosis of hereditary diseases and on the technology of cloning.
Criticism of biotechnologies are based on actual misunderstandings or on irrational arguments. Nevertheless, above all in countries where scientific communities are weaker, this criticism breaches at a political level. The consequence is legislation that limits freedom of research or forbids citizen access to medical techniques on the basis of respectable yet debatable moral petitions.
For historical and contingent reasons, Italy in recent years has been among the most economically developed countries, where ideological fundamentalism, with a religious and political imprint, attacked freedom of research, bringing serious consequences. The action of the two latest ministers of agriculture nearly zeroed agricultural and food biotechnological research, while law 40/2004 on assisted procreation imposed a series of bans on stem cell research and practice in the field of reproductive medicine that were as scientifically absurd as they were dangerous on a medical and health level.
The problem of political exploitation of science now goes beyond national borders, as is shown by the attempts to persuade the UNESCO and the UN to also ban therapeutic application of nuclear transfer technology (therapeutic cloning).
The World Conference on Freedom of Research intends promoting a vast public debate on an international level, to shed light on the mechanisms at the origin of perceptions distorted by science, and which encourage political exploitation of irrational attitudes to justify limiting freedom of research, of developing therapies useful to millions of people and of individual freedom of choice concerning health and disease. The Conference, which will seek its own rules and forms of action, will also aim at initiatives to contrast on a national and international level the political distortions of science.