When a group of uprooted Haitian farmers and the human rights workers advising them sought to understand the environmental impact of an industrial park, they turned to the American Association for the Advancement of Science to enlist the expertise of a water specialist through its On-call Scientists program.
Since its launch in 2008, On-call Scientists, a project of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program (SRHRL), has created a global network to connect human rights organizations with volunteer scientists eager to contribute scientific knowledge, tools, or methods to a range of challenges the groups seek to resolve. The program has received more than 200 requests for volunteers to work on a project.
“Addressing human rights issues requires accurate, reliable evidence. Volunteers make that evidence accessible to frontline communities to best support local solutions,” said Theresa Harris, project director for SRHRL.
The collective of Haitian farmers were displaced from their land in 2011 by the construction of the industrial park intended to boost the Caribbean country’s economy in the wake of a devastating earthquake the year before. The farmers demanded accountability from the Haitian government and the Inter-American Development Bank, which financed the park. Yet, 7 years later they were still struggling from the loss of their farmland, prompting the collective to file a complaint raising concerns about the project’s environmental and social impacts, including its effects on groundwater and watersheds of the vital Trou-du-Nord River and Caracol Bay.
To understand the results of water quality tests provided to the farmers, Accountability Counsel, a human rights organization advising the farm collective, reached out to On-call Scientists with a request for hydrological and watershed expertise. They were matched with Kirsten Nicholson, a professor of geological sciences at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Nicholson has participated in three projects, all focused on water issues, since learning about On-call Scientists at a AAAS Annual Meeting.
Nicholson reviewed documents such as environmental impact assessment statements and provided insights to the human rights organization on the findings. With a background in geochemistry and water, “I can see things that other people have overlooked,” she said. More importantly, she can identify what assessment reports exclude. “What are the omissions? What are they glossing over?”
In December 2018, the collective and Haitian authorities reached an agreement. The accord calls on the government and the development bank to provide access to new land and educational, employment, and business opportunities for the displaced farmers and their families.The agreement also outlined commitments by the bank to oversee the hiring of an independent laboratory to regularly test wastewater from the industrial park and publish the results, said Lani Inverarity, a senior community associate with Accountability Counsel.
Nicholson’s evaluation and advice on the implementation of the agreement “will be critical in helping the community and their advisers to provide feedback on the scope of that testing and to analyze the results,” Inverarity noted.
Many other human rights institutions that reach out to On-call Scientists echo the benefits of its scientific expertise, said Harris. “The tenor of conversations changes completely when stakeholders have scientific information,” she said.
While many human rights organizations seek assistance from On-call Scientists for information about the potential environmental consequences of development projects, the breadth of requests is so varied that the program seeks volunteers across the scientific fields, Harris said.
Take, for instance, the Scholar Rescue Fund, a program of the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to student exchanges. The fund extends fellowships to professors, researchers, and public intellectuals facing persecution or violence that prevents them from working in their home countries. The fund identifies yearlong placements where scholars can continue their work safely, said Emily Borzcik, assistant fund director.
In evaluating a scholar’s eligibility, the fund considers the threat faced and the applicant’s academic background. “Sometimes those specialties can be very specific and very narrow,” said Borzcik, prompting the fund to enlist volunteer scientists in specific disciplines to illuminate the quality, rigor, and significance of the scholar’s work.
Since the Scholar Rescue Fund first enlisted the help of On-call Scientists in 2015, volunteers from a range of scientific disciplines have fulfilled 50 requests to review a scholar’s work. Said Borzcik, “The feedback that we get from scientists in the program can really be integral to helping us understand a scholar’s background.”
This article originally appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the March 29 issue of Science.