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On-call Scientists Help Solve Global Crimes

Science may not be able to stop some of the world’s mass atrocities, but it can help expose the perpetrators.

When abuses are brought to light, human rights groups can call on AAAS On-call Scientists, a group of volunteers who can help them document violations. The program, which began in 2008, now has 1,200 scientists and engineers ready to assist various organizations across the globe who need human rights advice.

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Sandra Zakowski. Courtesy of: Sandra Zakowski

Sandra Zakowski, a psychologist who has volunteered with the On-call Scientists program since 2009, said the program’s support for human rights organizations “seemed like a perfect fit for my interests.”

“I’d never thought about how psychological science can contribute to helping develop projects to document human rights abuses around the world,” Zakowski said.

On-call Scientists have aided more than 150 investigations and campaigns so far, from proving the use of chemical weapons in Syria to fighting discriminatory evictions in Maryland, said Theresa Harris, project director in the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program.

“AAAS has a long history going back to the ‘70s and ‘80s of applying science and technology to addressing human rights concerns using DNA to identify people who have been disappeared, forensic anthropology to identify remains in mass graves, using statistics to document genocide, helping truth and reconciliation commissions better use information management systems to the work we have been doing here for the last 10 years using geospatial technology to document human rights violations,” Harris said.

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Courtesy of: Kirsten Nicholson

The program has drawn researchers like Zakowski and Kirsten Nicholson, a geology professor at Ball State University in Indiana, who signed up to be an On-call Scientist after hearing a presentation at a AAAS Annual Meeting. Since then, she’s provided expertise on water supplies and possible contamination to farmers in Haiti challenging an industrial park.

Her work usually involves researching the history of the specific area, analyzing relevant documents and reading reports on how a project could affect water resources.

 “One of the things I love about this work is it’s a little bit like detective work,” Nicholson said. “There’s a lot of sleuthing involved … All the projects I have worked on have been really interesting and complicated.”

The detective work is more literal for another AAAS On-call Scientist, Tal Simmons, a forensic anthropologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. Simmons specializes in the analysis of human remains, using clues like rate of decomposition and indications of trauma to help human rights groups investigate massacres. Through the On-call Scientists program, she has been a longstanding advisor to Amnesty International.

She believes her work in the AAAS On-Call Scientists program is meaningful. “It’s the most important part of what I do, and the most interesting part of what I do,” Simmons said. “Not that I don’t enjoy my research and my teaching and my students I enjoy them tremendously. But I think it’s the most fulfilling part of what I do to work with NGOs and hopefully provide information that can be used in the judicial system down the road and provide, for lack of a better word, closure for relatives of victims.”

Simmons has worked as an expert investigator to investigate massacres committed during the bloody ethnic conflicts that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. She also reviewed other analysts’ work for a tribunal that investigated the killings of civilians during El Salvador’s civil war.

As the On-call Scientists program neared its 10th birthday, its managers were looking to expand its reach. Harris said some human rights organizations were still hesitant to reach out to AAAS without a detailed proposal, which may have left them unaware of some resources that were available.

That led to the creation of On-Call Scientists Hotline in 2018, aimed at offering a less-formal point of contact for organizations to ask about what help scientists and engineers might be able to offer.

“We wanted a way to get many more scientists involved in the work in a way that was coming through AAAS as a trusted intermediary,” Harris said. The Hotline “is an opportunity for those human rights practitioners to just ask questions, to get a better idea of what tactics might be available, or what technologies or what methods.” The Hotline connected Zakowski to a group that wanted advice on how to train survivors of human rights abuses to interview other victims. She’s also consulted on three other projects through the On-call Scientists program. Much of her focus has been on training rights groups how to interview conflict or abuse survivors who may have emotional responses, flashbacks or seemingly go numb when asked to recount their experiences.

“We try to prepare them for the kind of reactions they might be getting,” Zakowski said. “We try to help them navigate how to respond when they are seeing traumatic stress reactions. Some of this may be inevitable, but there are certain ways interviewers can respond in order to be sensitive to the survivor’s needs.”

Nicholson, who’s now studying groundwater contamination around the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal, also feels like she is making an impact as part of the AAAS On-call Scientists program.

“I’m a full professor. My university gives me a lot of liberty to pursue things that interest me. I want to do something useful,” she said. “If I can be a little bit useful to these communities, that’s fantastic.”

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Matt Smith