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AAAS Board of Directors Urges Scientists to Join Global Discussion on the Right to the Benefits of Science

The AAAS Board of Directors has adopted a statement on the human right to the benefits of science, pledging to help get scientists more involved in an ongoing global effort to clarify the meaning of that right.

The right to enjoy the benefits and applications of scientific progress was first internationally recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Promotion of the right can bring improved living conditions for marginalized populations and wider protection of open scientific inquiry, but there also are challenges. How to balance intellectual property rights with broader access to cutting-edge discoveries? How to guarantee public benefit from science that is increasingly carried out by private entities? How to close the gap between those with the resources to foster scientific progress and those who lack such resources?

An international process, underway since 2007, is seeking to clarify the meaning and practical implications of the right to the benefits of science.

The 16 April 2010 statement by the AAAS Board is meant to encourage greater and more effective engagement by scientists in that multilateral process, undertaken by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In recognizing that the right to the benefits of scientific progress “lies at the heart of the AAAS mission and the social responsibilities of scientists,” the Board said, “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.”

The Board says AAAS will bring to the attention of its affiliates and members the right to the benefits of scientific progress and engage them in the ongoing discussions concerning the definition of this right and its application in practice. It adds that AAAS also will engage the U.S. government and other key actors in discussions on how the right to benefits from science might affect particular policies and programs.

According to Jessica Wyndham, project director for the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, the right to the benefits of scientific progress does not entitle everyone to receive free cosmetic surgery or hybrid cars. At a minimum, she says, the right is meant to ensure access to the basic science and technology required to live life with dignity, including essential health care, potable water and basic sanitation. That could mean, for example, crafting exceptions to the intellectual property laws or finding other innovative solutions to allow access to essential medicines for the vulnerable and marginalized.

In addition to the 1948 Universal Declaration, the U.N. General Assembly adopted in 1966 the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a legally binding treaty which, in Article 15, recognizes the right of all to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress, and requires governments to conserve, develop and diffuse science; to respect freedom of scientific inquiry; and to recognize the benefits of international scientific cooperation. To date, 160 governments have become signatories to that treaty, including Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom, but not the United States.

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Program has focused on Article 15 as one of its program areas and is pursuing it as a key initiative of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition. The coalition was launched in January 2009 and now consists of 45 scientific membership organizations and more than 40 individual scientists.

See the full text of the AAAS Board of Directors statement on the right to the benefits of science.

Get more information on the AAAS Science and Human Right Program and the AAAS-led Science and Humans Rights Coalition