More than a century after its discovery, chagas remains a neglected disease: Although it kills more people in Latin America than any other parasite-borne affliction, most of them in impoverished rural areas, research funding is insufficient to drive dramatic progress. Now organizations are hoping to sharpen the focus of policymakers by casting effective treatment as a human right—the right to the benefits of scientific progress.
The right to science. In testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, AAAS experts suggested that the right to the benefits of scientific progress could extend from improved access to clean water and agricultural innovation to research freedom and strong science education. [CREDIT: Ben Barber/USAID]
Appearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), experts from AAAS testified that the long-established but rarely applied right could help address a range of challenges in the Americas, from science education to government suppression of research. And when they urged the commission to join in a worldwide effort to define and develop the right, the response was clearly favorable.
As the right develops, it “gives us so many tools and indispensable elements for the development of our people,” said Commissioner María Silvia Guillén of El Salvador.
“Human rights promotion and protection depends on scientific information in a number of fields,” said commission Chair Dinah Shelton. “Is the drinking water of a community safe or has it been polluted? Whose bones are in the field and how did the people die? Was a given individual tortured?...Those are just a few of the issues in which the commission needs scientific evidence.”
The AAAS experts were invited to appear before the commission in Washington, D.C., on 25 October, marking the first time in the commission’s 52-year history that it had heard testimony on the right to the benefit of scientific progress. The presentation was an outgrowth of a 2010 statement by the AAAS Board of Directors pledging to support involvement by scientists in the effort to establish “with greater clarity the meaning of the right... and how best to implement the right in practice.”
The right has long been established in international treaties and agreements, most prominently in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and in the U.N.’s binding 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. But it received little attention until 2007, when UNESCO initiated a process to define the right and how it might be applied.
In their testimony, the AAAS experts suggested the right to the benefits of scientific progress would work in concert with other established human rights to promote the public’s health and well-being and to encourage political support for the scientific enterprise.
“Science and technology are vital to the realization of human rights,” said Jessica Wyndham, associate director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.
In her testimony, Wyndham listed five core elements of the right: a focus on the needs of “marginalized and vulnerable” populations; the creation of a participatory environment, including strong science education; enhanced international cooperation and assistance in science; protection against abuses caused by the use or the misuse of science and technology; and recognition that scientific freedom is essential.
Government can play a crucial role in supporting or undermining the right, the speakers testified. Jorge Colón, president of the AAAS Caribbean Division, cited instances in which Latin American scientists have been harassed for research on death squads. Less directly, Colón said, governments compromise the right when visa policy makes it difficult or impossible for foreign researchers to attend conferences.
Since the Board of Directors’ 2010 statement, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition has convened focus groups with scientific and engineering organizations and the Caribbean Division has held a conference to explore the issues. This fall, the Caribbean Division, the AAAS International Office, and other partners released “Science for Haiti,” a roadmap produced by scientists, engineers, and educators from Haiti, Puerto Rico, Canada, Rwanda, and the United States.
Guillén suggested the report could be a model for other impoverished nations. But commissioners also raised questions about how the right would be applied: Could it threaten intellectual property rights? Might a public clinic be obligated to provide advanced reproductive therapy to an impoverished couple?
A dialogue between the commission and AAAS could address such questions, said Mark S. Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program. “We think that, working together, we can overcome some of the barriers and move this right forward.”
View a video of the AAAS presentation and the full text of AAAS testimony at www.aaas.org/go/right_to_science .