published January 9, 2013

The Human Rights Implications of Scientific Conduct

By Theresa Harris

Senior Program Associate, Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program

As previous articles in this series have highlighted, scientists are uniquely positioned to advance human rights throughout society. At the same time, the conduct of scientific research and the applications of scientific knowledge and tools can have negative human rights implications. Thus the right to benefit from scientific progress carries certain responsibilities.

Applying a human rights frame to scientific practice can complement and reinforce existing ethical standards. For example, the federal regulations that protect human subjects in research, known as the "Common Rule," are based on the ethical principles of respect for persons, beneficence and justice. These same principles also underpin human rights norms. In some instances, these ethical standards even have explicit counterparts in human rights treaties, such as the protection from medical or scientific experimentation without consent, articulated in Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues noted this congruence in its 2012 report, Moral Science: Protecting Participants in Human Subjects Research. The Commission remarked that "the Common Rule shares a philosophical foundation with human rights that calls for protecting study participants rights. These norms also are reflected in the terms of international human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a signatory. Americans, like many people and nations, hold these norms to be fundamental moral duties owed to every person, each of whom is entitled to respect by virtue of their unique status as moral agents."

The Moral Science report arose from disclosures of grievous abuses of human subjects during a U.S.-led biomedical study conducted in Guatemala in the 1940s. Today, as cross-border collaborations become increasingly common, the importance of understanding the implications of human rights for the conduct of science will only expand. Since many countries have incorporated human rights principles into their national laws, researchers working with colleagues in other countries may be subject to human rights-based standards alongside codes of ethics. Beyond regulations and legal systems, incorporating human rights approaches can help build bridges across disciplines, borders and cultures by providing a common set of values for framing research collaborations.

It is important to recognize that human rights norms and codes of ethics do not correspond exactly. For example, human rights instruments recognize community-held rights and the rights of demographic groups alongside individual rights. Compare this with ethical codes that consider individual research subjects independent of their places in society, or with research guidelines that focus on the wellbeing of the community. Furthermore, codes of ethics tend to be specific to a discipline's applications, methodologies and practices, while human rights are intended to be comprehensive and universal. These distinctions will not always pose conflicts, but in some circumstances they could compete for priority. Rather than impeding researchers from incorporating human rights principles into their work, these points should illustrate how understanding the human rights implications of scientific conduct can expand awareness of the ways science impacts society, and of scientists' social responsibilities.