AAAS Celebrates 5th Anniversary of On-call Scientists Program

Members of a UN inspection team examine a 330mm rocket found at the al-Mahariq strike site in Syria, according to a September 2013 Human Rights Watch report. [Video by abo. rawan/YouTube]

When Human Rights Watch began to monitor reports of chemical attacks in the Syrian civil war, they turned to Keith B. Ward to help them confirm the use of chemical weapons. Ward combed through video and photos of attack victims and reports from medical personnel in the war zone, to determine whether the clinical symptoms shown by the victims could have been caused by a nerve agent rather than a typical explosive device.

In his role as a AAAS On-call Scientist, Ward was ready to assist the organization again when the largest attack to date, in the Ghouta region near Damascus, occurred this August. His analysis helped Human Rights Watch confirm that a chemical attack had taken place, in a report that played a significant role in international negotiations to curb Syria's chemical warfare capabilities.

Keith B. Ward (top) and Georgene Mortimer [Courtesy the subjects]

Ward is one of nearly 800 scientists, engineers and health professionals who have volunteered their time and expertise to the On-call Scientists program, launched five years ago by AAAS' Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program and sponsored through 2012 by Oak Foundation. The program connects researchers with human rights organizations to work on a variety of projects around the globe, from documenting discrimination and torture to studying the impacts of child labor and environmental degradation.

Five years after the launch, "there is now a depth and breadth of experience that allows us to build multi-disciplinary teams and advisory panels for human rights organizations, in addition to the referrals for one-time projects," said AAAS Senior Program Associate Theresa Harris.

Ward was first contacted as a volunteer two years after retiring from the FBI, following a long career that included work on chemical weapons detection at the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. But the Syrian analysis was the first time he had seen the effects of a chemical attack on victims.

"Viewing, and actually having to study in some detail, the large number of photos and videos of suffering, dying and dead victims was indeed distressing," Ward said. "But my previous training with DoD, DHS and the FBI had prepared me to focus on the task at hand even in the face of emotionally charged situations."

Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's director of emergencies, agreed. "Human Rights Watch's effectiveness depends on its reputation for accuracy, 100 percent of the time. When it came to investigating chemical weapon attacks in Syria, we needed expertise on which we could rely. Keith was a perfect match, bringing extensive experience and expertise in identifying the symptoms associated with chemical weapon attacks."

The On-call Scientists program fills a critical need for human rights organizations that tackle scientific issues but lack dedicated scientific staff, said Lewis Gordon, director of the Environmental Defender Law Center (EDLC). His organization provides free legal aid in developing countries to help protect the rights of environmental activists and communities faced with environmental threats. "In our work science is often very important because we're trying to understand and document harms or threatened harms to the environment and to human health," he said, "and there is often a dispute about the extent and nature of those harms."

"When I can say to groups in developing countries, 'I've got a pro bono scientist for you with years and years of training and experience,' it's like a gift from heaven," Gordon noted.

Georgene Mortimer is among the On-call volunteers who have worked for EDLC. An expert in the investigation and remediation of petroleum contaminated sites, she is assisting the group with two lawsuits in Africa and North America against major oil companies. In the North American case, "communities surrounding a very large oil and gas operation believes that the pollution from these operations is harming their health, fouling their water and rendering pasture and cropland unusable," she explained. "I was given a series of technical reports to review to determine whether the scientific data bore this out."

Tiffany Griffin [Courtesy Griffin]

Her analysis was exactly what EDLC needed to bring the science to bear on the lawsuit, Gordon said. "We're always looking for translating, as it were, from a bunch of numbers and reports to something we can understand."

Hansdeep Singh, co-founder and director of legal programs for the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD) also relies on On-call volunteers when "we really want to make that data speak, and flesh it out." ICAAD works with social psychologist Tiffany Griffin and Courtney Cogburn, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at Harvard University, on a project that analyzes gender and ethnic discrimination in legal systems around the globe. As social scientists, Singh said, Griffin and Cogburn provide important interdisciplinary analysis for the organization's reports.

"It's a great way to translate the science, as well as the transferrable skills that we develop as Ph.D.s," Griffin said of the experience.

Mortimer found the AAAS program when she was searching for a way to get involved with the human rights community, but she said other researchers might choose to join "just to feel the personal satisfaction of having your work improve the lives of others."

Ward, who now works with Amnesty International as well as Human Rights Watch, calls the On-call program "habit-forming."

"I think most people who volunteer for this program will see it as I do," he said, "as a great way to pay back in some sense our nation and the world for the tremendous good luck and great opportunities that we have had to develop rewarding technical careers in a free society."