AAAS Caribbean Division Explores the Vital Connections between Science and Human Rights

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—On a Tuesday afternoon last January, when the earth beneath Haiti began to shift and tremble violently, scores of people rushed from the street into their homes or other buildings for shelter. In hindsight, that was exactly the wrong thing to do, says Fritz Deshommes, vice rector of research at l’Université d’État d’Haiti.

Their reflex, in many ways understandable, contributed to a disaster of hemispheric proportions: more than a quarter-million buildings damaged or destroyed, 230,000 people killed, and another 300,000 injured. In the aftermath, Deshommes has come to believe that the failure to basic understand earthquake safety shows that a lack of science knowledge can have a profound impact on human rights.

“The situation we have with a science deficit in Haiti—poor science education influences the well-being of Haitians and causes harm to human rights such as the right to life, the right to health, the right to education and employment,” the former journalist said at the AAAS Caribbean Division’s recent annual conference.

Deshommes’ presentation was a signature moment in the conference at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras, where scientists, educators, students, community organizers, and human rights experts explored links between science and human rights. Participants discussed issues in health, the environment, education, and other fields, with a focus on Puerto Rico and Haiti. But they also discussed the emerging global recognition of the human right to the benefits of scientific progress, and how broader recognition of the right might improve daily life in the Caribbean Basin, Latin America, and beyond.

In assessing and implementing that overarching right, there is “a unique role for the Americas,” Jessica Wyndham, acting director of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, told the conference.

The AAAS Caribbean Division was founded in 1985 to create a hub for AAAS members in all of the islands and countries in the Caribbean region, from Venezuela up through the Dominican Republic and Haiti to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The division convened its 25th annual conference 24-25 September, bringing together more than 200 people for a special, two-day anniversary program.

Fritz Deshommes
Fritz Deshommes

Under the theme “Perspectives in Neurobiology and Human Rights,” division President Jorge Colón and the division’s Board of Directors built a program that celebrated the accomplishments of the past but focused on key areas of interest for the future.

“We are excited about the perspectives that speakers and others shared at our conference and we hope to advance these issues in the Caribbean,” said Colón, a research professor of inorganic and bioinorganic chemistry at UPR’s Río Piedras campus. “Building a strong foundation in science and science education and promoting human rights will help us continue to benefit our members and the advancement of science in the Caribbean region to better serve society.”

AAAS President Alice S. Huang became the first AAAS president to attend the division’s annual meeting, and at the division’s anniversary banquet she delivered a talk on the importance of minorities and women to the future of U.S. science and technology innovation.

Jorge Colón
Jorge Colón

The second day of the program featured a selection of sessions on neurobiology, and especially on the neuroscience of addiction. Steven Treistman, director of the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), delivered a plenary lecture on biological and environmental factors that shape the neurobiology of alcoholism.

A later session covered a range of neurobiological issues, from gender differences in addictive behaviors and the effects of anabolic steroids on the brain to circadian rhythms and honey bee learning. At the same time, the conference offered separate sessions on brain science for teachers and for students at different levels, including a workshop for high school students on neuroscience and drug addiction.

Science as a Human Right

Discussion of human rights was featured on both days of the conference. Even before the meeting formally opened, Wyndham met with more than a dozen Puerto Rican community organizers, human rights leaders, and researchers to discuss the right to the benefits of scientific progress and how local concerns might be addressed within that right. That discussion continued more formally on the opening night of the conference.

In a talk that opened the conference, Wyndham said Latin America has played a strong role historically in recognizing the science component in human rights.

A right to the benefits of scientific progress was codified as early as 1948 when the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man was adopted in Bogotá, Colombia, by the Ninth International Conference of American States. Later that year, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Wyndham explained that it included language proposed by Chile and modified by Cuba: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

In 1966, the UN adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a binding treaty which recognizes the right to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.”

That covenant “also requires governments to conserve, develop and diffuse science; respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research; and encourage international contacts and cooperation in science,” Wyndham said. Among the 160 countries that have ratified the covenant are 26 Latin American and Caribbean nations.

A Right Neglected—and Re-discovered

The right was for many years neglected in global policy, legal scholarship, science and rights and activism, she told the audience. But then, beginning in 2007, a group of experts convened by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held a series of meetings to determine how the right could be applied in practice. In 2009, following a final meeting in Venice, the group issued a document that went further than ever before in defining the right and suggesting governments’ obligations in meeting it.

At the foundation, the Venice Statement held that scientists must be free to conduct their research. Governments must protect against the abuse of science by third parties. And, Wyndham said, the statement urged governments to take broad actions in education, public engagement with science, international science cooperation, and other areas to help assure that the right is implemented.

Last April, the AAAS Board of Directors adopted a statement on the right to the benefits of science, pledging to help get scientists and engineers more involved in the ongoing global effort to clarify the meaning and practical implications of that right.

“The Americas have a unique role to play in giving meaning to the right to benefit from scientific progress, and demonstrating what realization of that right means in practice,” Wyndham told the Caribbean Division audience. “However, for that to occur, it will be necessary for scientists, for scholars, for lawyers, and civil society generally to start demanding compliance with this right.”

In comments after Wyndham’s talk, Puerto Rican educators and community leaders made clear that they saw the right to the benefits of science as potentially valuable to their work on a range of issues.

Alfonso Román, a representative of Amnesty International’s Puerto Rico Section, expressed concern about government plans for a cross-island natural gas pipeline that could disrupt existing communities and sensitive ecosystems. Maricarmen Carrillo, a representative of Puerto Rico’s National Association of Environmental Law, said that discharges from a coal-fired power plant that began operating in 2002 could have an impact on human health in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean region.

“The connection between science and human rights is quite clear when we consider the environment,” Carrillo said. But, she added: “When there’s a lack of access to science or science information, it limits people’s ability to seek their rights.”

Other speakers, too, stressed the need for science education and more engagement between scientists, the public, and elected officials. Jorge Oyola, a representative of the Los Filtros Community-Based Organization, worried that some people, lacking reliable information, have been concerned getting about vaccinated against the H1N1 flu.

A similar point was stressed by Daniel Altschuler, former director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and representative for the UNESCO Chair in Education for Peace at UPR-Río Piedras. In remarks submitted for the meeting, Altschuler cited research that found a 28% science literacy rate in the United States—and the rate in Puerto Rico, he added, is probably “way below” that.

But the government, the news media, and scientists themselves all have a role in the lack of science literacy, Altschuler said. And he suggested that the lack of public discourse about science could grow worse as Puerto Rico’s government slashes funding for the University of Puerto Rico.

“In order to demand their right to access scientific knowledge and [the] benefits of science, it is necessary that people have an understanding of what science is, and what it is not, and an appreciation of the potential benefits in the short and long terms of scientific activities,” he said. “This can only be achieved by an energetic and concerted effort dedicated to the public understanding of science… Only when we pass 50% [science literacy] will people be ready to demand their right.”

A Focus on Science and Rights in Haiti

Haiti, still reeling from the 12 January earthquake, provides an acute case study of the link between science and human rights, and how the human right to the benefits of scientific progress might be applied there.

Already, AAAS and the AAAS Caribbean Division have joined with UPR and others to coordinate an initiative to support Haitian scientists and engineers who are trying to rebuild the nation’s S&T infrastructure and redefine its role in Haiti’s economy, schools, and development plans. A team of researchers and educators from Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the United States met this summer in Puerto Rico and Haiti, working to develop policy and education ideas to support the Haiti science initiative. Their recommendations will be presented to Haiti’s new government after the nation’s 28 November elections.

But even before the earthquake, Haiti was one of the world’s most impoverished nations, and destruction from the quake is so extensive that any successful rebuilding effort will require a broad effort, likely to cost billions of dollars and take years to complete. Haitians and their advocates say that despite generous pledges from around the world in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, much of the aid has yet to be delivered.

Fritz Deshommes, the vice rector for research at the State University of Haiti, assessed Haiti’s “science deficit” by measuring the impact of the quake in his nation against a quake six weeks later in Chile.

Chile’s quake was far more powerful: a magnitude of 8.8, versus 7.0 in Haiti. But in Chile, a few more than 500 people died, compared to 230,000 in Haiti. The epicenter of the Chilean quake was near a less populous area, but Deshommes said the disparity in destruction was telling.

“The magnitude of the earthquake does not explain the damage,” Deshommes said.

Rather, he said, Haiti lacked the scientific foundation that would have helped it to be prepared.

“In our country, there’s not one seismologist—not one,” he told the audience. “There are some geologists with some knowledge of earthquakes, but not very many.”

Lacking such expertise, Deshommes said, the country had little anticipation that an earthquake might happen, though history and geology would have raised the possibility. Lacking anticipation, its building codes did not come close to the strong codes in Chile. Even where there are building codes, he explained, the science deficit and the precariousness of daily life for most people shape a culture in which the codes aren’t followed. The result: When an earthquake strikes, there is extensive death and destruction.

Wyndham extended that point, focusing on response to the quake and preparations for future disasters. Though months have passed since the quake, she said, science-based resources are still needed to respond to health and displacement issues among the Haitians.

“Doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, epidemiologists and other health and mental health professionals need to be recruited to assist,” she said. The health needs of women need particular attention, she said, especially those who are pregnant and those who have suffered sexual and other abuse. Special attention also should be given to the prevention of infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

At the same time, she added, social scientists have “a vital role to play in creating monitoring mechanisms, benchmarks and indicators to identify the needs of the affected populations and ensure that measures taken to address those needs are effective.”

Given Haiti’s vulnerability to future quakes and hurricanes, scientists are also needed to assess and plan mitigation strategies. Wyndham said the U.N. Operational Guidelines and Field Manual on Human Rights Protection in Situations of Natural Disaster, released in 2008, recognizes “the responsibility to mitigate the effects of a disaster as part of the duty to protect life, security, and the physical and mental health of the population.”

The Role of Science in a Nation’s Rebirth

Beyond the emergency response, speakers agreed, Haitian scientists are right to be seeking a stronger national commitment to science and technology as a means of rebuilding and improving the country.

Romain Murenzi
Romain Murenzi

Given strong commitment and effective leadership, it is a strategy that can work even for poor and traumatized nations, said Romain Murenzi, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Sustainable Development. Murenzi played a central role in shaping Rwanda’s successful science-for-development policy while serving as a minister in the government of President Paul Kagame between 2001 and 2009.

Rwanda and its fragile economy were shattered by the 1994 genocide that left some 800,000 people dead, mainly ethnic Tutsis as well as politically moderate Hutus. But Kagame’s government pursued an ambitious recovery plan starting in 2000, and Murenzi, overseeing policy on science, technology and education, helped the adoption of science-, technology-, and innovation-based policies across all sectors of the economy—health, agriculture and animal husbandry, water, environment, and information communication technologies. Government policy led to achieve dramatic increases in school enrollment and food production. Dramatic decreases were achieved in HIV prevalence and malaria infections. Rwanda adopted the One Laptop Per Child program and installed a nationwide fiber optic system for broadband connectivity.

At the start of Kagame’s presidency, “we were begging food every year,” Murenzi told the audience. “Now Rwanda is exporting food… It is the only country in the region with food security.”

Responding to a question from Deshommes, Murenzi said Rwanda achieved food security in part by applying agricultural science to the nation’s farm efforts. For example, government programs stress basic practices such as proper feeding and watering of coffee bushes and other crops. Hillsides have been terraced to prevent erosion.

Thus far, however, leaders have not given science that kind of role in Haiti’s recovery. The current recovery plan developed by the Haitian government “simply does not include science as a component of recovery,” said Gary Machlis, professor of conservation at the University of Idaho and one of the organizers of the Haiti initiative advanced by the AAAS Caribbean Division and its partners.

As part of the recovery effort, Machlis said, Haitian scientists and their colleagues must work “to educate Haiti’s leaders so that they better understand and value the role science in Haitian economic and sustainable development.”

At the grassroots, however, there are some ambitious efforts to aid Haiti’s recovery.

James Beaver
James Beaver

James Beaver, a professor in the Department of Crop and Agro-Environmental Sciences at UPR-Mayagüez, detailed efforts of the Dry Grain Pulses Collaborative Research Support Program (CRSP) to improve bean production by breeding for disease resistance and adaptation to specific locations or climates.

Haiti remains a predominantly agricultural society, Beaver said. Farm families comprise some 60% of the population, and a third of the nation’s land is arable, though much of the growing is done on steep, vulnerable terrain. In Haiti, 80% of the beans consumed are locally grown.

“The CRSP project focuses on beans because this grain legume is an important source of protein for poor people, and it is a traditional food in the Haitian diet,” he said.

Research yields valuable side-benefits as well, he said. The MIT Charcoal Project has helped Haitian peanut farmers with a simple device that compresses hulls into fuel briquettes, easing the need to cut trees for fuel.

Deshommes told the audience that Haitian agriculture faces challenges apart from soil and climate. U.S. free trade policies have devastated Haitian agriculture, he said, causing the loss of 800,000 farming jobs—and exacerbating poverty—in the past decade.

For the long-term, speakers said, Haiti needs to nurture another key resource: students.

Josee Vedrine-Pauleus
Josee Vedrine-Pauleus

Josee Vedrine-Pauleus, a Haitian-born electrical engineer at UPR-Humacao, said aspiring Haitian scientists could benefit from exchange programs and other short-term overseas assignments at schools and labs, and then to bring their new understanding and ideas back home. Machlis said a key for Haitian leaders will be to prevent brain-drain by creating opportunities for scientists to work at home and do important work.

Wyndham, too, called for educating a generation of scientific experts to help guide efforts in disaster mitigation, development, and other areas.

“Universities—not just faculty, but also students—in Haiti, in Puerto Rico, and beyond, will serve as the source of experts, as incubators of ideas, and as the base for effective collaborations across borders and across disciplines,” she said. “While human rights provide the framework within which to identify the needs of the affected communities, science provides the tools with which to address those needs.”

Edward W. Lempinen


Gilda S. Jimenez Wins AAAS Caribbean Division Award for Excellence in Science Education

(l-r) AAAS President Alice S. Huang; Lucy Gaspar, AAAS Caribbean Division treasurer; Gilda S. Jimenez, winner of the 2010 Lucy Gaspar Award for Excellence in Science Education; and Jorge Colón, Caribbean Division president
(l-r) AAAS President Alice S. Huang; Lucy Gaspar, AAAS Caribbean Division treasurer; Gilda S. Jimenez, winner of the 2010 Lucy Gaspar Award for Excellence in Science Education; and Jorge Colón, Caribbean Division president

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Gilda S. Jimenez, a high school science teacher whose students have excelled in state and regional science fairs, was named the winner of this year’s Lucy Gaspar Award for Excellence in Science Education during the 2010 AAAS Caribbean Division meeting.

Jimenez has taught for 11 years at the Petra Mercado Bougart School, a public high school in Humacao, on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. She also leads the school’s science club.

In giving the award to Jimenez, the Caribbean Division said top honors won by her students in recent science fairs, the students’ involvement in community outreach, and her work training other teachers helped establish her record as “an excellent teacher and an extraordinary mentor.”

She also has participated as faculty in the Partnership for Research and Education in Materials, a project to support study and research in materials science in partnership with the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Pennsylvania, with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Some of her students in that program have already presented their work at professional conferences and co-authored research in peer-reviewed journals, and many have gone on to seek bachelor’s and advanced degrees at universities around the United States. Thirty are seeking bachelor’s degrees and five are pursuing graduate studies in materials science or related fields at universities across the United States.

The award is named for Lucy Gaspar, an educator and long-time Caribbean Division secretary-treasurer who remains deeply involved in Puerto Rico’s science education and teacher training efforts.


Lea este artículo en español.

Read a sidebar on high school teacher Gilda S. Jimenez, winner of the AAAS Caribbean Division’s 2010 Lucy Gaspar Award for Excellence in Science Education.

Read the full text of Jessica Wyndam’s talk at the AAAS Caribbean Division conference, “Defining and Applying the Right to Benefit from Science: A Unique Role for the Americas.” Also see her talk, “Science, Human Rights and Haiti’s Recovery.”

Read the full text of remarks by Daniel Altschuler, former director of the Arecibo Observatory and author of “Children of the Stars.”

Read a background story on partnerships being developed between the AAAS Caribbean Division, scientists and educators in Haiti, and the U.S. S&T community.