published November 8, 2012

Scientific Freedom and Human Rights: Existing Battlegrounds

Jessica M. Wyndham

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

Last month, seven scientists were convicted and sentenced to six years in prison in relation to the 2009 earthquake that hit L'Aquila, Italy and killed more than 300 people. This sentence reverberated through the global scientific community. Labeled "unfair" and "naïve," subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices is feared may impede scientific freedom.

Scientific freedom is vital to the development of a robust and productive scientific community. Without the freedom to engage in scientific inquiry, scientists cannot innovate, collaborate, disseminate their work and participate in the scientific process.

The concern of the scientific community for the rights of scientists became acute during the Cold War. Letters were written and diplomatic overtures made to governments that intimidated, incarcerated or otherwise silenced scientists whose opinions and activities challenged governmental policies and practices. This work continues today. Threats to scientific freedom, however, are not unique to repressive regimes but occur in Western democracies as well. Existing battlegrounds include:

National security vs scientific freedom – export controls, travel restrictions, limitations on foreign contacts and information sharing, trade embargoes and sanctions, and similar barriers to international cooperation limit the freedom of scientists to conduct their work, and to collaborate internationally.

Politically driven harassment – climate scientists, in particular, have been subject to harassment and frivolous legal challenges, creating a hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings, making it difficult for factual information to reach policymakers and the public.

Morally motivated harassment - certain fields of research raise moral and ethical concerns. Scientists who use animals in their research, for example, have been subject to personal attacks, harassment and death threats.

Restrictions on scientific freedom can lead to violations of human rights, whether the rights of scientists or the rights of the communities that benefit from scientific progress. For this reason, the responsibility to respect "the freedom indispensable for scientific research" is enshrined in international treaty law (Article 15(3), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights).

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that scientific freedom is not absolute. Scientists are expected to conduct their research responsibly and in accordance with ethical standards, standards which in practice are often developed and maintained by discipline-specific professional organizations and supported by legal and institutional mechanisms. The legitimate imposition and scope of such restrictions require examination.