published December 19, 2012

Celebrating Human Rights Day and the Right to Benefit from Scientific Progress

Jessica M. Wyndham

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

Happy Human Rights Day! December 10 marked Human Rights Day, the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first international statement of human rights, the Universal Declaration addresses civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights and forms the basis for all subsequent international, regional and domestic human rights instruments.

The language of human rights can appear amorphous, failing to provide concrete guidance on when and how a specific right applies in practice. In the decades since the adoption of the Universal Declaration, a lot of thought, discussion and debate have led to an increased understanding of the meaning of specific rights and these rights have led to concrete legal, policy and institutional developments and tangible benefits for individuals and communities.

One human right that is only just beginning to receive attention is the right to "share in scientific advancement and its benefits." Recognized in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration, this right became the basis for Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) which requires governments ensure everyone enjoys "the benefits of scientific progress and its applications." Article 15 also speaks of the duty to conserve, develop and diffuse science, to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research, and to encourage international contacts and cooperation in science.

An effort is underway to give this right meaning and promote its application. Consensus has emerged around the following fundamental characteristics of the right: focus must be given to marginalized and vulnerable populations; dissemination of scientific information is essential to facilitating public participation in decision-making about science; strengthening international cooperation and assistance in science and technology is vital; and the right includes a corresponding obligation to ensure against the use and/or misuse of science and technology in violation of human rights.

The scientific and academic communities have specifically been called to participate in the process of defining this right. Your input is needed to determine core issues related to the practical application of the right, including the following:
- In what circumstances can the freedom of scientists to conduct their research be limited?
- What does scientific responsibility mean from a human rights perspective?
- What creative and effective mechanisms exist to lower the price of vital scientific and technological products without limiting the "moral and material interests" of scientists in their creations?
- What role can government legitimately play in ensuring that third party actors (e.g., industry) do not violate the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress?

As we celebrate Human Rights Day 2012, consider the important contribution you can make to a contemporary, practical and significant human rights challenge – how to define and apply the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.