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AAAS Advises UNESCO on Updating 1974 Statement

In 1974, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a wide-ranging statement that explained how and why governments should support and encourage scientific research. Forty years later, AAAS has answered a call from UNESCO for advice on how to update this seminal statement "so that it reflects better today's concerns about science in relation to society."

The AAAS recommendations offer a window into how perceptions of science's role in society have changed since the 1960s and 70s. At that time, due largely to the Cold War, "there was a lot of activity in the U.S. and worldwide about the ability of scientists to travel, and express themselves," said Mark S. Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program. "And, there was a growing recognition that unless one paid attention, science could end up being part of the problem more than the solution."

The original document emphasizes what member states should do to support scientists and the importance of academic freedom: "It should be fully taken into account that creative activities of scientific researchers should be promoted in the national science policy on the basis of utmost respect for the autonomy and freedom of research necessary to scientific progress."

In his 30 October letter, however, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner urges the organization also to elaborate on scientists' professional and social responsibilities. "We, therefore, emphasize the importance of considering scientific freedom and responsibility as two sides of the same coin, where both are critical to being a productive and successful scientist," Leshner writes.

He cites dual-use research, such as the synthesis of certain types of viruses, which has the potential to be used for good or harm, as an example of an area where scientists' responsibilities should be described more explicitly. The statement should also emphasize scientists' responsibility to share their research findings and data and submit their work to peer review; it should elaborate on how institutions can educate young scientists about their ethical and social responsibilities; and, it should give suggestions for effectively and responsibly communicating science to the public, according to Leshner.

Other suggestions involve clarifying the importance of diversity and inclusiveness. The revision process should capture the views of a wide segment of the scientific community from both developed and developing countries. It should emphasize the critical need for diversity in the S&T workforce, and the language about discrimination should be expanded to mention disability and sexual orientation.  And, the updated statement should reference all fields of science — life, physical, computational, behavioral and social — as well as engineering, according to Leshner.

It makes sense for AAAS, as "the voice of science," to offer input in this process, said Jessica Wyndham, associate director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program. "We're the world's largest multidisciplinary scientific membership organization, and we're unique in being a leader on addressing ethics and human rights as they address science practice and policy. The UNESCO statement touches on all of those elements."

UNESCO has now concluded its first public call for advice and will carry out a second call in 2015.  It will put the revised text to a vote by UNESCO Member States at its 39th general conference in 2017.

[Photo credit for associated teaser image: Flickr/United Nations Photo]