The folly of boycotting USSR science

In the words of one scientist, much of the American scientific community -- indeed much of the Western scientific community generally -- is "fed up" with Soviet oppression of dissident scientists. This growing exasperation has reduced what was a steady flow of East-WEst scientific exchange to an uncertain trickle. But there is a futility and an unwise element of brinkmanship in these confrontational politics.

This, warns William D. Carey, executive officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "calls for second thoughts."

A widely respected administrator and statesman of science, with considerable government service in his background, Carey puts the issue in a perspective that deserves serious consideration. He is as disgusted as are his militant colleagues with Soviet repressions. Yet, along with a number of scientific leaders, he is even more concerned with the deterioration of US-USSR relations generally. He does not like what he perceives to be a rudderless drift toward a disastrous conflict no one really wants. The scientists' boycott only exacerbates the situation, whereas continued contacts could be a kind of safety valve.

In an editorial in the AAAS journal Science, he writes:

"The evidence is that the boycott technique, as applied to scientific exchange with the Soviets, is availing next to nothing. . . . When an instrument of policy turns up useless, the sooner it is put down the better. But that is a hard thing to do when it has been invested with the authority of the establishment. Such is the price that is paid for going too far and leaving no exit. . . .

"The ground water of smoldering enmity is heating up, and it cannot be allowed to flash into steam.The conscience of science, however justified its outrage at Soviet behavior, nevertheless has the greater burden of striving to prevent the ultimate outrage. . . .

"It violates no confidences to report that leaders in science in both countries view the present tension with undisguised alarm. . . . This is what troubled scientists on both sides are now signaling to one another, and for good reasons.

"The position is that we are very nearly out of safety valves as the nuclear superpowers drift toward impasse. If scientific responsibility is more than an idle phrase, it requires participation in the pursuit of peace and conflict resolution. The quarantining of Soviet science, however principled, defeats the chances for engaging a concerned and far from impotent cohort of [Soviet] opinion and influence is a dialogue of reason.'

Western scientists should heed Carey's warning and think again about their larger responsibilities. As with President Carter's Olympics boycott, turning one's back on Soviet science is a dramatic -- and self-righteous -- act. But when its actual consequence is only to edge the world toward war, it is a self-indulgence scientists cannot afford -- especially when all humanity's future is at stake.

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