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AAAS Advances Its Efforts to Define, Implement the Right to Science

Jessica Wyndham speaks at conference held at the U.N. headquarters
Jessica Wyndham delivers an overview of the value of implementing the right to science to a panel session held at the United Nations headquarters in New York. | Theresa Harris/AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science took another step toward clarifying the meaning of the human right “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications” and assisting in the eventual implementation of a right that the AAAS Board of Directors has endorsed as central to its mission.

The progress came during a Feb. 22 meeting hosted by the permanent Italian mission to the United Nations and organized by AAAS and the Luca Coscioni Association, a group that supports “indispensable” scientific research. The meeting was held at the United Nations headquarters in New York as part of ongoing efforts to assist in an U.N. procedure, known as the “General Comment” process, to interpret the meaning of the right to science and guide participating nations in crafting a regulatory framework to implement the right.

Jessica Wyndham, director of AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program, represented the world’s largest general scientific organization at the meeting and laid out the meaning of science, the benefits it contributes to human rights, the obligations of nations that are party to the underlying agreement and the challenges facing implementation.

“Articulating what the right to science means in practice has the potential to serve as a watershed moment by providing the basis for governments and civil society, including the scientific community, to assess the extent to which any government is adequately supporting a robust scientific enterprise,” Wyndham said in her presentation.

AAAS has held 17 focus groups since 2010 involving 145 U.S. participants representing a broad range of scientific disciplines. In 2016, it conducted a  questionnaire to deepen understanding of the leading benefits of the right to science as cited by scientists, engineers and health professionals, gather insights into how the right should best be applied and identify barriers to implementation. The information gathering activities were done in conjunction with Margaret Weigers Vitullo of the American Sociological Association.

The presentation marks the second time AAAS has contributed to the U.N. process regarding the right to science. On Feb. 22, 2017, Wyndham along with Vitullo presented the findings of their research during a briefing of the U.N. Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, the body responsible for undertaking the “General Comment” process and for monitoring implementation of the treaty containing the right to science. In reporting their findings, they said most respondents cited improving health and advancing knowledge as science’s the greatest benefits.

The right to science is articulated both in a multilateral treaty — the 1966 Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which first recognized the right internationally. The agreements seek to ensure equitable access to scientific advances, investment in scientific research and development, freedom to pursue scientific inquiry responsibly and international cooperation in scientific exchanges including travel.

The United States is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights but has not voted to ratify it.

In her address, Wyndham underscored that the right to science does more than deliver the material benefits of its applications but also produces “logical and empirically-based” knowledge that can inform policymakers and individuals in making personal decisions about everything from what to eat to whether to use a seat belt.

Such benefits require governments to bring scientists into their agencies and departments, use their peer-reviewed data and analyses to inform policymaking and evaluations – approaches that also should be extended to the legislative and judicial branches of government, she said.

To ensure the benefits of science, she added, governments have a duty to fund research, enable data and samples to be gathered, support science education and training and ensure access to the information communications technologies necessary for the communication of science.

Mikel Mancisidor, who serves on the U.N. Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and is the coordinator of the “General Comment” process, also addressed the meeting, making clear that the process of developing an authoritative interpretation of the right to science will take time, though he announced a follow-up meeting at U.N. offices in Geneva will be held this fall.

Barriers to access to the benefits of science, particularly in the health sector, result from a shift in the balance of public sector funding for research and private sector funding for development, Wyndham noted. Reconciling calls for greater access to medicines with intellectual property protections for the private sector, for instance, present a significant challenge that will need to be addressed by those involved in the U.N. process as it moves forward.

“Science lies at the heart of so much that is basic to our humanity, to our dignity as humans, and to our long-term viability as a human race on this Earth,” Wyndham said.

Contributing to the process of translating and putting into action the articulated right of “the benefits of scientific progress and its applications” brings closer the day “when everyone from a school child in their classroom, to a minister at her desk, will think of the right to science as an overarching framework that supports and drives scientific knowledge, understanding and the policies that science informs,” she concluded.

It was a sentiment sounded by the AAAS Board of Directors when it adopted on April 16, 2010 its position that “Recognizing that this right lies at the heart of the AAAS mission and the social responsibilities of scientists, AAAS will pursue opportunities to collaborate with the global scientific community so that the voice, interests and concerns of scientists can be brought to this process.”