Scientific Freedom and Cross-Border Cooperation Underlie Core Human Right

Moderator Sharon H. Hrynkow of the Global Virus Network, along with panelists (L-R): Frank William La Rue, Herman Winick and E. William Colglazier [AAAS]

A poor, rural village seeking a safe source of drinking water might first need the Internet in order to promote the free exchange of scientific information, one human-rights expert contended 11 July during a meeting of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition.

Researchers must be able to freely exchange information, often across borders, to help uphold everyone's right to enjoy the benefits of science, said Frank William La Rue, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. All human rights are interrelated, said La Rue, founder of the Center for Legal Action for Human Rights: After all, he noted, people cannot enjoy the benefits of potable water unless scientists can study how best to purify it. Such efforts require unencumbered scientific freedom of expression.

La Rue's comments were offered as part of a panel discussion on the relationship between international research cooperation and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees everyone the right to enjoy "the benefits of scientific progress and its applications."

His remarks echoed comments offered by Michael H. Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, during an October 2012 event at AAAS. The right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits "simply cannot be realized without the climate of free expression that is essential to the unfettered thinking that produces scientific advancement in the first place," Posner's written remarks for that event stated.

Posner was addressing Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which preceded Article 15 and has been fully embraced by the United States. Article 27 ensures everyone's right "to share in scientific advancement and its benefits."


Frank William La Rue (top), Herman Winick and E. William Colglazier (bottom) [Jonathan Drake/AAAS]


In contrast, the international covenant that includes Article 15, adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1966 and ratified by 160 governments, has been signed but not yet ratified by the United States. However, La Rue's co-panelist E. William Colglazier, science and technology advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State, said that the United States, "as a policy matter," does uphold the "values and principles" of Article 15 — "envisioning a world that promotes the ability of everyone to share in scientific advancement and its benefits."

Colglazier, a former AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, expressed strong support for advancing scientific benefits worldwide. "I drank the Kool-Aid on the benefits of science and technology a long time ago," Colglazier joked, while also reviewing the serious role that science can play in advancing diplomacy and economic progress. At the State Department, Colglazier said, his office has worked to ease regulatory hurdles, such as lengthy visa application procedures for foreign scientists, which can inhibit international research cooperation. Finding solutions to global challenges such as disease threats, insufficient food supplies and climate change will require international research cooperation, he noted.

He cited a number of U.S.-supported programs that help promote productive international scientific cooperation. Those efforts include, as only a few examples, the Science Technology Innovation Expert Partnership, which links U.S. researchers with foreign audiences; the NeXXt Scholars Program, an effort to help young women from Muslim-majority countries as well as the United States to pursue undergraduate science-related degrees from U.S. women's colleges; and LAUNCH, which supports innovative approaches to global sustainability challenges.

Another panelist, Herman Winick, a retired physicist with the Stanford University Department of Applied Physics, now focuses on supporting the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), a joint effort involving nine countries. The particle accelerator, under construction in Jordan, illustrates how national security concerns can be appropriately managed to promote multi-national research goals, he said.

Colglazier noted that the United States must remain alert to the risk of new threats and security challenges. But, he added: "The United States has much to gain from global scientific engagement and from helping to develop more knowledge- and innovation-based societies around the world. Since knowledge is not a zero-sum game, all boats rise with the tide."

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition has been working since 2009 to engage scientists and engineers in defining and advancing Article 15. In a 14 June 2013 article in Science, AAAS Associate Program Director Jessica Wyndham and co-author Audrey Chapman noted that key conceptual questions must be answered before Article 15 can be fully realized. For example, they asked, "What kind of infrastructure and policies are required to implement the right?" Wyndham said, after the 11 July event, that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes an array of human rights, and while U.S. ratification seems unlikely for now, many of the principles contained in the treaty do currently and may increasingly inform U.S. policy and programs.

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition is a network of scientific and engineering organizations that recognize a role for scientists and engineers in human rights. The Coalition is an activity of the association's Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program.