published November 21, 2012

Access to Science - Another Human Rights Struggle

By Karen Kashmanian Oates

This article is a reflection on a thought piece published in earlier in the SENCER eNews by Jessica M. Wyndham of AAAS. We hope this series will encourage discussion and enable you to infuse attention to science and human rights in your work.

What if you didn't know there was a direct correlation between smoking and lung cancer, or that living near a bus depot increases your child's likelihood of suffering from lung disease, or that lack of folic acid in pregnancy can cause severe birth defects? This information, and lots of other information like it, is freely available to those of us in developed nations because we have access to scientific knowledge.

The catalog of important scientific discoveries is enormous. What we can know and do, as a result of knowing about these scientific discoveries, can influence every aspect of our lives. To say that this knowledge has "life or death" importance is no exaggeration.

When people are denied, though ideology or political power of some kind, access to scientific knowledge, they are deprived of a basic human right: the right to the benefits of scientific progress and its application. By scientific knowledge, I mean knowledge that is grounded in observation and experimentation, reported without bias or discrimination, interpreted based on evidence and not through a particular ideology.

Though such access seems commonplace to us, we need to know that it is by no means universal. We have a role to play as change agents in this process. As teachers and researchers, let's extend our thinking beyond creating knowledge to focusing on the obligations we have as global citizens. Is it our responsibility to disseminate knowledge to people in areas that do not enjoy easy access to scientific information? Whose help can we elicit in such an effort?

Looking around our campuses, what do you see in the faces of our students? I see the faces of budding scientists and engineers, who come from all corners of the globe to practice their human right to learn of the power and promise of science and engineering, to learn what is needed to help their communities build dams, generate power, cure illnesses, solve the problems of hunger and population growth, to give just a few examples. These students — this diaspora and its web of connection around the globe — represent our greatest potential for extending the human right to the benefits of science.

Human rights are not defined or confined by borders. I would say they are "self-defined" and that they inhere in the dignity of every human being. Accessing rights, however, is another story. I believe we have a moral obligation to do what we can to share the knowledge we have with others who do not.

To solve global problems, sometimes pandemic in their scope, we have to acknowledge their complexity and the great challenge to the scientific and engineering community they represent. Not only do we need what is known from the developed fields of physics, computer science, biology and mathematics, but, we need also to access to knowledge and knowledge systems from all corners of the world.

This transnational approach depends of collaborations and partnerships forged by scientists (and graduates) who view themselves as world citizens. Our future scientists and engineers from around the globe must be encouraged to use responsible scientific knowledge for prediction and prevention without fear of imprisonment. But this is no simple matter. Consider how complicated this can be by thinking about just one recent example: the conviction of six scientists charged by the Italian government following the earthquakes deaths and the resignation of several other scientists in protest. It's worth thinking about and helping students navigate the complex territory of science and politics.

So, when you see the beautiful faces of our students who have inherited this earth walking across campus and sitting in your classroom, I hope you will feel as energized as I am about our collective role in helping them understand and extend the human right to science for all. Please find time to talk about human rights with your students, to imagine the benefits and think about the challenges that a fully developed version of this right will entail, and to consider the promise and the peril when science and politics collide. This is a tough mission, but it is one we and our institutions can be proud to steward.

(Next: The role of scientists and engineers in human rights)