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French Academy of Science award winner on need to protect scientists

The French Academy of Science has awarded its top prize to Joel Lebowitz, a professor of physics and mathematics at Rutgers University, for his work on statistical physics. Lebowitz, a Holocaust survivor, is one of the co-chairs of the Committee for Concerned Scientists, a US-based advocacy group, that fights for the rights of scientists who are jailed or persecuted for their political beliefs.


LISTEN: Joel Lebowitz on how his personal history drives him to fight persecution of scientists

What are the dangers facing scientists in the world today?

Unfortunately there are many. There's a student in Iran, who was a graduate student in Texas and went back to Iran to visit his family. He was arrested and accused, we believe falsely, of receiving money or doing other things for the United States, and he has been sentenced to 10 years in jail... We believe that the true reason is that he did not want to work on the nuclear project in Iran. And that this is a way of setting an example

Science has a lot of real-world implications-

Yes, indeed. Mostly it's expressing opposition to oppression in various ways. Sometimes, like in Egypt, scientists became politicians, or at least some of the advisers of former president [Mohammed] Morsi were scientists, or at least by training. And they are in jail without any trial for a very long time.... That is the majority of cases [are people jailed for their political activities, who happened to be scientists]. The case of this Iranian student was more connected to science.

What drew you to this kind of work?

I went through a concentration camp [to Auschwitz at the age of 14]. I'm sure that has some influence on it. You feel it personally. Being persecuted, I guess, makes you aware that there are things going on in the world that are not quite right and should be better. But I think it's really a concern of everybody, in particular of scientists. Because science is very international... We say, and we try to keep it non-political. We do not agree, certainly with the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, but we don't agree with the current military government either.

Do scientists have a responsibility to get involved in politics and speak out?

I think everybody has a responsibility to get involved and speak out. I think scientists in Western countries are a privileged class, and have a more international behavior. In many cases, maybe beginning with the Soviet Union, scientists have been at the forefront of dissidence... Certainly not all scientists, and not only scientists, but scientists have been more proportionally represented, I would say, in opposition to some of these tyrannical governments.

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