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"On-call" Scientists: AAAS Initiative Connects Scientists with Human Rights Organizations
A new online database launched by AAAS is connecting scientists and engineers interested in volunteering their skills with human rights organizations in need of scientific expertise.
Developed by the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP), the resource will compile profiles of volunteer scientists, including their professional skills, experience, and willingness to travel, and match them with human rights organizations requesting scientific consultation.
The project—"On-call" Scientists—is open to scientists in medicine, statistics, earth science, anthropology and any other discipline who can offer their time and expertise, on a pro bono basis, to organizations that promote, monitor, and protect human rights at home and around the world.
SHRP Director Mona Younis said that building professional relationships between scientists and human rights organizations advances the goals of both groups.
Through these collaborations, she said, human rights organizations obtain access to vital technical assistance, enhancing their work and increasing their impact. In turn, scientists gain the opportunity to contribute to and gain a better understanding of human rights and new applications of their knowledge.
"Both scientists and human rights activists care about impact," said Younis. "Through these relationships, human rights practitioners should see their efforts enhanced and scientists will see new opportunities to make a difference."
The project was unveiled at a seminar held on 23 October at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., which brought together three teams of scientists and human rights practitioners who collaborated on projects in the United States and abroad. The teams were interviewed about the opportunities and challenges they encountered, and what their partnerships had accomplished.
Chris Beyrer and Philip Fornaci
Moderated by Aubrey McCutcheon, director of programs at the human rights advocacy group Global Rights, the event entitled "Science Serving Human Rights: Making It Happen" was sponsored by SHRP, the Washington Statistical Society, and the Capital Area Social Psychological Association.
In 2004, Philip Fornaci, a lawyer at the D.C. Prisoners Legal Services Project, approached Chris Beyrer, M.D., an epidemiologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, to ask him if he would collaborate on a project documenting prisoner access to medical treatment.
Specifically, Fornaci was interested in whether prisoners were given access to vital medicines such as insulin, asthmas inhalers, and HIV/AIDS anti-virals. While access to all medicine is important, Fornaci explained that interruption in HIV/AIDS anti-viral doses, for example, increase the likelihood of patients developing a resistance to the drugs.
Due to the reluctance of prison officials to let outside physicians survey and examine prisoners, Beyrer trained lawyers and law students to evaluate prisoners' access to medical attention while interacting with the prisoners under the protection of attorney-client privilege. The project confirmed anecdotal evidence of significant delays in receiving medical attention, which later led to policy changes in D.C. jails.
"Working on a project to make sure that citizens have access to medical services is an extension of the bioethics courses that every physician takes as part of their medical training," said Beyrer. "But," he added, "human rights training is not yet required for practitioners."
Yvonne Milewski and Susannah Sirkin
Yvonne Milewski, M.D., chief medical examiner in Suffolk County, N.Y., traveled to Bosnia in 1996 at the request of Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, to help investigate mass graves scattered throughout the war-torn country.
In addition to identifying victims and reporting to their families that the remains had been discovered, Milewski's work led to the prosecution and conviction of individuals for war crimes.
Milewski, who later went on to help identify victims of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, said that she looked forward to the challenge of applying her expertise to situations outside her traditional work environment.
"What is most exciting and important for me is to take what I do at home in comfortable and familiar surroundings with staff in somewhat predictable applications and outcomes, and attempt to work in a strange place, and at times, with completely different outcomes and applications," said Milewski. "In this way, scientists may not be able to imagine or conceive of how successful methods might be utilized in a different context, within human rights investigations."
Lars Bromley and Ariela Blätter
In 2007, Lars Bromley, director of the SHRP's Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, teamed up with Ariela Blätter, director of the Crisis Prevention and Response Center at Amnesty International USA, to document human rights violations in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Based on eyewitness accounts of homes and villages being destroyed, Bromley obtained before and after satellite images of the affected regions. After analyzing the images, Bromley was able to confirm the eyewitness accounts, lending increased support to an Amnesty report and raising awareness of the destruction around the world. More recently, Bromley and Blätter collaborated on a report documenting destruction in the South Ossetian region of Georgia.
Blätter said that "these collaborations may not make it impossible for human rights violators to hide their destruction, but it will definitely make it harder."
The seminar was the first outreach event of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition. The coalition, to be officially launched in January 2009, will be a formal organization of scientific societies and individuals to facilitate communication and partnerships on human rights within and across scientific and human rights communities.
25 November 2008