The Year of Conscience.

By Jack Heinemann on behalf of the “Year of Conscience” branches · February 2015

2015 is the 100th anniversary of the introduction of gas warfare. Weaponised gas was both made possible and advocated by scientists in the private and public sectors of combatants on both sides of World War I.

In commemorating this anniversary, Academic Freedom Aotearoa and the Tertiary Education Union Branches at the University of Canterbury, University of Otago, Lincoln University, the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology and Otago Polytechnic have joined together to declare this year The Year of Conscience.

This group intends to draw attention to the essential role of academic staff and and students to serve as the Critic and Conscience of Society by bringing forth unpopular or controversial opinions. We think that it is especially important to recognise opinions not just held by a minority, but held by those who feel under threat expressing them. As a group, our organisations believe that 2015 is an important year to acknowledge, promote and celebrate the contribution of academic staff and students of tertiary institutions who bravely confront social forces that cause harm to the poor, minority, persecuted or disadvantaged.


We honour both the critic and the conscience of society. Nevertheless, we think that 2015 is the right time to draw specific attention to the conscience. The role of conscience emphasises the professional and humanistic ethics of staff and students over the technical or scholarly qualifications associated with the critic. The conscience is often less visible than the social critic. Like the critic, the conscience can also cause strong reactions, and can be every bit as controversial.

WWI was a time when the role of conscience crossed the boundaries between science, religion and liberal arts. This war was the event that raised our awareness of, and appreciation for, the conscientious objector, personified by New Zealand’s Archibald Baxter. It was the year that chemist Dr. Clara Immerwahr (1870-1915) executed herself in protest of her husband, Dr. Fritz Haber’s, prominent role in producing and deploying weaponised chlorine gas in the trenches of Ypres, Belgium.

Our interest in Dr. Immerwahr is her legend of conscience. She was a pacifist married to one of the most aggressive wartime scientists of the era. We cannot know the full context of Dr. Immerwahr’s death or her relationship with her husband. However, her choice as an academic, a scientist and person of great conscience was to protest her country’s role, and the role of science leadership, in creating what she knew was the great suffering that results from the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Her story is also fitting with the critic and conscience role of the tertiary sector because this role is under threat from proposed changes to university governance and focus on STEM subjects. Importantly, as the pressures on tertiary staff to conform to political and industrial agendas mounts, tertiary staff – scientists and engineers in particular – and students need role models of conscience, not just critics.