published October 24, 2012

Science and Human Rights: Making the Connection

Every year I get asked to repeat the "promises" that I began asking all participants in our Summer Institutes to make to one another at our first gathering in 2001. At first, there were three:

- to work hard to fulfill our obligations to those making it possible for us to do our work,

- to be moral today, and

- to use our power to enlarge what we all know.


Around 2005, I added another:

- to encourage intellectual risk but also to reduce damage to those who take risks.


This Summer, I added a fifth:

- to work to enable all to claim their human right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.


This new promise was inspired by our engagement with the AAAS Project on Science and Human Rights. My partner in founding SENCER, Karen Oates, urged this engagement upon us. Through her efforts, the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement was elected to membership in the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition (reported on in this newsletter on August 30, 2012). Just this week, we learned that Karen has been chosen as a member-at-large of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition Steering Committee. This Committee ensures implementation of decisions of the Coalition Council and provides guidance to the working groups. This is, of course, a source of pleasure and pride for me and for all who know Karen and her commitments.


Our challenge—and indeed our obligation now, however, it seems to me—is to encourage attention to the science and human rights issues and opportunities that face us, to bring these matters to the attention of our community, and to invite you to enlarge this discussion and its potential impact.


Towards these ends, we are instituting a regular feature in our e-newsletters that will help us answer these and other questions: if this is a right, what kind of right is it? and what can each of us do to promote the goal of ensuring that humans can claim this right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications?


Jessica Wyndham, associate director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, will be helping us think about and answer these and other questions in a series of short pieces that we hope will enable you to infuse attention to science and human rights in your work. Karen (koates@wpi.edu) will coordinate this effort and she is ready to work with you to promote your use of these materials and engagement with the work of the Coalition. We launch this new feature in this issue Jessica gives us a cogent introduction to the concept of what this right means. Please read it. We welcome your questions and comments.


I thank Karen and Jessica for bringing these crucial concerns to the members of the SENCER community.


- David Burns


Science and Human Rights: Making the Connection

Jessica M. Wyndham

Associate Director, Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science


To the uninitiated, science and human rights have little to do with one another. Yet, there are multiple connections between science and human rights and only through understanding the relationship between them can the benefits of bringing science and human rights together be fully realized.

First to define key terms: "science" includes the life, physical, behavioral and social sciences and is used also as a shorthand, however inadequate, to encompass engineering and the health professions; and "human rights" refer to the fundamental entitlements, guaranteed by law (international, regional and domestic), that derive from the mere fact of being human, are aimed at ensuring everyone lives a life with dignity and encompass civil and political rights (e.g., the rights to a fair trial, freedom of expression) as well as economic, social and cultural rights (e.g., right to health, education).

What, then, are the connections between science and human rights?

1. Human rights of scientists – like all human beings, scientists have human rights. However, some rights are of particular relevance or have particular meaning e.g., the right to freedom of expression encompasses the right to communicate the results of research without censorship; and the right to freedom of movement includes the right to participate in scientific meetings.

2. Applications of science to human rights – from forensic anthropology to identify the missing in mass graves to the use of geospatial technologies to document the destruction of villages, scientific methods and innovative applications of technology have become vital tools in the toolbox of human rights practitioners.

3. Scientists as a voice for human rights – as educated individuals, bringing the rigor of their methods and the credibility associated with the peer-review system, scientists constitute an important constituency for human rights.

4. Human rights implications of scientific conduct – the way scientific research is conducted and the applications of scientific knowledge and tools can have negative human rights implications. Applying a human rights frame to human subjects protections and the social responsibilities of scientists may complement existing ethical standards.

5. The right to science – according to international law, we all have a right to "enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications". What is more, governments have an obligation to conserve, develop and diffuse science, to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific progress, and to encourage international contacts and cooperation in science.


With this as an introduction, in a series of thought pieces to be published in this newsletter, my colleagues and I will explore the ways in which science, technology and human rights intersect in our daily lives, the implications for science policy, education and practice, and the challenging questions that need to be tackled when exploring the nexus between science and human rights.