published January 23, 2013

Barriers to Access the Benefits of Scientific Progress: A Global Perspective

By Jessica M. Wyndham

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

According to international law, the products and services that are the focus of economic, social and cultural rights must be available, accessible and acceptable. Taking as an example the human right to "enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications," this means that science-based information, products and services must be developed and exist for potential use (available), these must also be practically and financially accessible to relevant populations, and they must be acceptable in view of local environments and customs.

The right to "enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications" exists in a binding international treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). To date 160 states have ratified the ICESCR, indicating their intention to be legally bound by the treaty and the rights enshrined in it. Yet, many barriers remain to the realization of this right in practice.

Three particularly key issues are science education, pricing and funding:

Science education is vital for fostering a vibrant scientific research community as well as facilitating understanding of broad scientific concepts among the general public. Yet, barriers exist to ensuring access to quality science education including insufficient emphasis in school curricular, lack of qualified and trained science teachers, discrimination against girls and women, inadequate efforts to disseminate scientific information to public audiences, and deliberate efforts to obfuscate or conceal scientific data and findings.

Affordability is also crucial to ensuring that the benefits of scientific progress are broadly accessible. Within the community of advocates specifically focused on access to medicines, the promotion of generic competition is highlighted as an effective strategy for lowering medicine prices. Medecins sans Frontieres, for example, has shown that the development of generic drugs to treat HIV/AIDS by developing countries has led to a 99 percent reduction in the cost of these drugs. Other approaches to reducing prices specifically for products needed in poorer markets include 'patent pooling', and humanitarian licensing. The challenge that each of these mechanisms is created to address is the tension between ensuring affordability while respecting the intellectual property rights of creators.

Finally, funding. Taking the US as an example, in the past 40 years, government funding for R&D has decreased from a high around 67% in 1964 to a low of 25% in 2000. Corresponding with this shift has been an increased awareness of the 10/90 gap (10% of health investments address the health needs of 90% of the world's poorest) and particular fears for funding of the social, behavioral and economic sciences. A human rights-based approach calls for funding priorities to be directed to ensuring that the basic needs of marginalized and vulnerable populations are met. This principle applies both to governments with the resources and infrastructure to fund R&D and international development assistance as well as to governments that rely on such assistance and the importation of products.