The international human right to science and its applications should recognize scientific knowledge as a fundamental element of putting the benefit to work across the globe, said Jessica Wyndham, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s representative at an Oct. 9 United Nations meeting in Geneva.
Wyndham underscored that implementation guidelines the U.N. Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights is drafting must encompass non-material as well as the material benefits of scientific progress as part of the right to “enjoy the benefits of science and its applications.”
“Scientific knowledge empowers informed personal decision-making on what to eat and drink, whether to wear a helmet or use a seat belt, what medicines to take or treatments to follow, or whether to support a particular policy or practice,” said Wyndham in detailing how the applications of science is built upon scientific knowledge.
“We cannot ignore that the right is not just a right to the applications of science, but to scientific progress itself,” added Wyndham, who joined representatives of UNESCO, the German Institute of Human Rights and Case Western Reserve University on the first of four panels invited to address more than two dozen questions about which the committee is seeking input.
“The scientific method can reveal new truths about everything, from the vastness of the galaxies, the vibrations of atoms within solid structures, to the impact of germs and the complexities of humans interacting within social systems,” she said, quoting a participant in a focus group she conducted on the right to science. “As such, scientific progress, through scientific knowledge, is the foundation of continued scientific discovery.”
The proposition was one of three topics Wyndham, director of AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program, put forward in her address before the UN committee, which is working to finalize what is known as a General Comment to spell out how the 167 nations that are bound to implement the right to science can do so through practices and policies.
The right is articulated in a multilateral treaty — Article 15 of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — and in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which first recognized the right internationally.
The covenant seeks 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 committee’s task is to translate what Wyndham called the covenant’s “somewhat vague and amorphous language” into ground rules that participating nations can apply, test for their effectiveness, adjust and enforce – all actions needed to ensure signatories begin to enact the treaty obligations.
In opening remarks, Mikel Mancisidor, who serves on the committee and as coordinator of the General Comment process, expressed plans for the committee to produce a “mature draft” of its guidelines by spring 2019 and gain approval of them by next fall.
AAAS has been actively working with the committee for more than three years to develop the document – a collaboration that followed the AAAS Board of Directors’ 2010 endorsement of the right and call for participation in the implementation process. The United States is a signatory to the covenant, though it has not voted to ratify it.
AAAS collaborated with the member organizations of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition (established in 2009) to get the scientific community to articulate its perspectives on the meaning of the right to science and the measures needed to establish policies and standards to apply the right.
In her address, Wyndham presented findings drawn from multiple AAAS and Coalition efforts, including research conducted with Margaret Weigers Vitullo of the American Sociological Association, 17 focus groups that began in 2011 and a global questionnaire released in 2016.
The work gathered evidence to expand understanding of the right and benefits of science from the perspectives of various scientific disciplines and public health groups. Focus group participants cited “advances knowledge” as the second greatest benefit of science after “health,” Wyndham told the committee in support of her call for “knowledge” to be included in the definition of the right to science.
Pivotal to implementing the covenant is for participating nations to pledge to consider scientific knowledge in their decision-making processes, she said. “Not only should policy-making be evidence-based, but it should be transparent about the evidence on which it is based,” Wyndham said, noting it was a point AAAS stressed in its written submission on the right.
The covenant’s lack of qualifying language, something that was debated in its drafting but omitted from the final document, also drew Wyndham’s attention. “Scientific freedom is not absolute” she said, calling on the scientific community to define its responsibilities not just internally but externally, to society generally.
“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,” she concluded. “We must now go through the effort of defining the right so that it can be implemented, so that we can assess the extent to which the right is being realized.”
[Associated image: Jessica Wyndham/AAAS]