To most working scientists, the principle of the Universality of Science is axiomatic; they don’t spend much time thinking about it or considering the reasons why, as the ICSU statement I quoted just now asserts, it is fundamental to the progress of science. A few years ago, in response to an earlier call for an academic boycott – on that occasion one that was specifically directed against scientists – three Oxford colleagues and I set up a discussion group to examine the principle of the Universality of Science and to tease out its theoretical basis. We published the results of our discussions (2) in the journal Nature in January 2003, and as I still think our conclusions were on the right lines I shall summarise them here. The main feature of our paper was to give three reasons why boycotting scientists by reason of their country of residence should not be permitted.
1) The advance of science is potentially of net benefit to all mankind, and therefore avoidable obstacles to its pursuit are undesirable.
2) Since the value of a given contribution to science ought to be judged on its own merits rather than on the basis of any characteristics of the person making the contribution, the exclusion of a particular group of people from the scientific enterprise for reasons that are irrelevant to the science itself is a perversion of the objectivity that science demands.
3) With humankind dangerously divided by race, citizenship, religion and so on, the continued ability of scientists to cooperate in a way that transcends these boundaries is an important symbol of, and impetus to, the breakdown of such divisions.
The principle of the Universality of Science and Learning – that academics do not discriminate against colleagues on the basis of factors that are irrelevant to their academic work (such as race, religion, nationality etc.) – is well established and almost universally respected. To boycott academics by reason of their country of residence breaches this principle and harms the interests of the academics concerned. Two kinds of argument speak in favour of maintaining the principle of the Universality of Science and Learning: 1) that undesirable consequences would flow from violating it, and 2) that to harm people who are innocent of wrongdoing is morally unacceptable. Those who wish to boycott Israeli academics attempt to defeat the second type of argument by claiming that these academics are complicit in discrimination against the Arab minority in Israel or the occupation of the West Bank, and/or that Israeli universities suppress dissenting voices. Analysis of these claims shows that they are without serious substance.