published February 7, 2013

The Art and Science of Human Rights

Karen Kashmanian Oates
Dean, Arts & Sciences, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

On first impression, the idea of "human rights" seems to fall squarely within the spheres of the humanistic disciplines, in politics and diplomacy, and the broader framework of ethics and philosophy. Thinking about the intersection of human rights and science, however, holds the potential for connecting learning in the arts and sciences in important new ways, just as it enables a critical consideration of the professional responsibilities and special obligations that scientists, engineers and health professionals enjoy and practice.

Consider this recent observation by the president of the American Chemical Society (ACS):
"Today our biggest challenge is to help sustain Earth and its people in the face of population growth, finite resources, malnutrition, spreading disease, deadly violence, war, climate change, and the denial of basic humans rights, especially the right to benefit from scientific and technological progress."
—ACS 2012 Presidential Statement of Dr. Bassam Shakhashiri

Dr. Shakhashiri makes clear that the work of STEM professionals can no longer be confined strictly to a narrow disciplinary perspective or to one place on the planet. Whether we intend to or not, we operate beyond our borders. As a consequence, it is imperative that we understand the potential impact of our work on the natural and built environment.

We are most familiar with the ethics and standards of our specific disciplines. As we move across borders we need to ask a critical question: Do we know and adhere to the international standards for human rights?

Our scientific training should prepare us for developing both disciplinary and trans-disciplinary perspective on how work in our field affects others and the environment. STEM professionals should understand science as a social process having social and other implications. But these implications go far beyond science itself, to culture, history, economics, traditions, psychology, place and time. What would it mean, for instance, for all to benefit from scientific progress, including access to medical and mental health care?

Let me give an example from a forum on children and human rights, organized by the AAAS Coalition. Around the world, an astonishingly large number of children are abducted for sex trafficking or other exploitation and used as "soldiers" in armed conflicts. When those of these victims who are fortunate enough to be returned to their communities, they face significant reintegration challenges. In addition to the cultural practices that support re-integration, research discoveries by scientists have established that slow rehydration and protein nutrition, along with antibiotic therapy, lead to successful reintroduction. The question is: how do vulnerable communities learn this? If these fragile communities have the right to know these "benefits of science," who has an obligation to help them learn the benefits exist?

Access to the benefits of science is one of the human rights (as described in article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). For us in higher education, thinking about what this right means can serve two good purposes: (1) as a good in and of itself, as this a key element in a consideration of universal human rights, and (2) as a very attractive vehicle for integrating learning in science, the humanities, and arts. We need to integrate diverse perspectives and ways of knowing to answer complex challenges and capacious problems, like those mentioned in the example above. Beyond the practical benefits, ether is also the issue of how scientific inquiry and associated freedoms are protected. What would it mean to say that people were entitled to "unimpeded access" to experimental results, both basic and applied, as well as successful medical and mental health protocols? How does this right "square" with the property rights of those who have made scientific discovers and who may hold national patents to those discoveries? Do we really have free access to scientific knowledge?

Article 15 provokes us to ask who is engaging in science and why, who benefits and who pays, who determines what will be studied and produced (including potential dual use applications) both here and abroad. These, and many other related topics, are rich areas for intellectual discourse and discovery that are best addressed by both scientists and those in the humanities and policy disciplines. The arts and sciences represent a fertile –and I would say an essential—ground for multidisciplinary engagement with the question of human rights.

The good news is that there is room for you to be involved. Over 700 scientists are now enrolled in the AAAS "On Call Scientists Program."

This program partnering scientists and engineers with human rights organizations has successfully intervened in fragile communities. The time is right for more of us in science to encourage greater engagement of scientists and other scholars with human rights efforts across the globe!

Join us in these efforts. If you would like to talk about how you can be involved, please feel free to contact me at