University of Maryland Computer Science and Institute of Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) Professor Emeritus Jack Minker has been advocating for the human rights of scientists around the world for four decades, and he shows no signs of stopping.
“I did not intend to become active in scientific freedom and human rights (SFHR), but when you learn of the problems of scientists who have been dismissed from jobs, imprisoned, tortured, and, in some instances, murdered, it is difficult not to help, explains Minker, who received support for his efforts throughout the years from university colleagues and administrators, particularly those in the College of Computer, Mathematics, and Natural Sciences.
“The University of Maryland has always been a strong supporter of human rights and the brave scientists who wanted to leave their countries in order to continue their work,” says Minker, who has chronicled his correspondence with members of the global scientific community and his efforts to help them gain freedom in the recently published Scientific Freedom and Human Rights: Scientists of Conscience in the Cold War (IEEE Computer Society Press, 2012). The book discusses the plight of more than 300 scientists in 13 countries around the world whose SFHR had been violated.
When the university was considering a possible exchange with Moscow State University in 1977, Minker and other faculty members spoke out against the exchange based on Moscow State’s discrimination against scientists. Their collective response helped persuade university administrators to reject the exchange.
Twelve years later during the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing, China, many Chinese students at the University of Maryland turned to Minker for advice. The students feared for their lives upon returning to China following their participation in protests on the College Park campus. Minker wrote to several members of Congress urging their support of a bill to provide leniency for those students who did not want to return home. The bill was ultimately defeated by a presidential veto.
Minker believes today’s students should be aware of the plight of scientists in a world where repressive government regimes still exist. “Science is a universal need that is not owned by any country. When scientists are discriminated against, it is important that we help them,” he says. Minker assisted hundreds of colleagues, including computer scientist Victor Brailovsky and his mathematician wife, Irina, leaders in the Moscow refusenik community; Alexander Lerner, the first internationally known computer scientist to request an exit visa from the USSR; and Natan Sharansky, an Israeli human rights activist and former refusenik and prisoner, and his wife, Avital, who were separated when Natan was sentenced to 13 years of detention in a Siberian labor camp.
Minker is a leading authority in artificial intelligence, deductive databases, logic programming, and nonmonotonic reasoning. Among other honors, he is the recipient of the 1985 Association for Computing Machinery Outstanding Contribution Award, a 1996 University of Maryland President’s Medal, and a 2011 Heinz R. Pagels Award from the New York Academy of Sciences: Human Rights Committee.