Skip to main content

AAAS Program Finds Early Success Connecting Scientists, Human Rights Organizations

As organizations around the world observe International Human Rights Day on 10 December, a pioneering AAAS initiative launched just over a year ago has produced several active collaborations bringing scientific expertise to bear on human rights.

Since its launch in October 2008, the "On-call" Scientists initiative, which pairs scientists and engineers interested in volunteering their skills with human rights organizations in need of scientific expertise, has attracted more than 350 scientists and engineers interested in offering their time and expertise on a pro bono basis.

Active collaborations include psychologists and psychiatrists assessing evidence of torture; geologists investigating the effects of oil extraction in the Congo and gold mining in Guinea; a statistician advising on effective questionnaire-based research methods aimed at documenting discrimination against HIV/AIDS carriers; a psychologist helping to evaluate psychological impacts of child labor in artisanal diamond mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo; and an economist studying the price of rebuilding infrastructure in Hurricane Katrina-affected regions the United States.

“The program is incredibly powerful because it allows human rights organizations to use scientists’ expertise and analytical methods to bolster their human rights missions,” said Kathleen Nicoll, a professor of geology and geography at the University of Utah.

Earlier this year, Nicoll began working with Global Rights, a Washington, D.C.,-based human rights organization, to document the impacts of oil extraction on human rights, including the right to food and water. According to residents of small villages in the Congo, the quality of water and access to traditional sources has only decreased since oil extraction started. According to the World Health Organization, the need to travel more than one kilometer or 30 minutes for water are indicators that these persons do not have access to water.

Using a hand-held GPS unit to create new maps, Nicoll found that the average distance to the closest water sources was over one kilometer, with water samples drawn from virtually all of the wells indicating pollution—frequently due to oil extraction nearby.

She said that science and documenting the right to access clean water go hand-in-hand. “You need laboratory tests for E. coli, pH, and other chemical tests to prove the presence of harmful compounds,” she said.

International Human Rights Day honors the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the first global framework for human rights—by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948.

Developed and managed by the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP), “On-call” Scientists provides a web-based mechanism for compiling profiles of volunteer scientists, including their professional skills, experience, and willingness to travel, and human rights organizations seeking scientific assistance.

The project database currently includes scientists representing a broad range of disciplines including climatology, chemistry, medicine, pharmacology, statistics, and economics, as well as geographical locations including Ghana, Morocco, Brazil, India, Denmark, Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, and New Zealand.

The first match between an “On-call” Scientist and human rights organization occurred in March 2009 when Anne Alexander, an economist from the University of Wyoming and former AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, began collaborating with the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. Her role was to study the potential costs and benefits for Montana associated with “treating health care as right” by increasing access to and reliability of health care.

This soon became “On-call” Scientists’ first completed project.

In an 18-page report presented to the Montana State Senate, Alexander estimated that providing broad access to health care to address chronic, preventable diseases like hypertension and gastroesophageal reflux disease, for example, would save the state $1.4 billion dollars. Included in those net benefits are other effects such as reductions in infant mortality and visits to the Emergency Room. The report is now being used by a Montana state senator to introduce legislation to reform Montana’s healthcare system.

“It is important to build bridges between advocates and academics and recognize that each party has relevant knowledge to share,” said Anja Rudiger, human right to health program director at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. “Their collaboration strengthens the capacity of the growing human rights movement in the U.S.”


Jessica Wyndham

Jessica Wyndham, project director in the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, said that while there are many volunteers still waiting to be matched with a human rights organization, the number of requests for expertise is gradually increasing and the program continues to field requests from organizations exploring opportunities for cooperation. A prominent example is the Innocence Project, which works for the exoneration of innocent people and prevention of wrongful convictions through the application of DNA evidence.

Wyndham said that the benefits of cooperation made through “On-call” Scientists go in both directions: While human rights organizations benefit from the scientific expertise, “scientists and engineers gain a better understanding of human rights and see new applications for their knowledge.”

She added that AAAS encourages scientists and engineers from all disciplines to consider volunteering even if their profession is so specialized that they cannot imagine a possible application to human rights. She added that scientists of all backgrounds can help organizations integrate the scientific method into their data-collection and analysis.

Mark Logsdon, a geologist at Geochimica Inc. in Aptos, California, is currently working on a Global Rights project in the West African country of Guinea. While current political instability has prevented him traveling to the country, he will be observing how local gold mining is impacting the community.

Logsdon said that one of the biggest issues of mining gold is careful management of cyanide, which is used to extract gold from low-grade ore. Cyanide is an extremely toxic chemical, he said, which can cause tremendous problems for the environment and local residents if it is not handled correctly.

Most companies pool the cyanide-containing solutions after gold extraction in open air facilities close to their mining operations. If done correctly, he explained, the liquid cyanide turns to a gas and enters the atmosphere along with other reactions that can reduce cyanide concentrations to prevent significant environmental impact.

To keep the community safe, companies must fence off the toxic pools to prevent small animals from being exposed to the toxins and ensure that the reinforced pool structure does not leak.

Logsdon does not describe his collaboration with Global Rights as investigating human rights, but rather “making sure what’s being done by others is in accord with human rights expectations.”

While he does not believe that scientists have an obligation to participate in human rights work, he personally sees it as an “obligation and requirement I have for myself.” He said that he sets aside about 200 hours per year of professional time for pro bono work – most of which goes towards helping indigenous populations in countries around the world.

Logsdon said that he was somewhat surprised to be contacted by Global Rights due to his previous work in support of the mining industry. He said that he has spent nearly his entire 30-year career helping mining companies around the world ensure that they were operating in accordance with safety and environmental regulations.

“I was very surprised that a human rights organization would ask someone like me to help them,” he said. “But, they recognized that I am a scientist who pledges to give an unbiased opinion.”

Maria Koulouris, director of the Natural Resources and Human Rights Initiative at Global Rights, said that knowledge of the mining industry and science expertise are invaluable for her human rights organization.

Koulouris said that communities frequently have strong experiential evidence that industrial activities are negatively impacting their access to adequate and sufficient food or water sources. “But without scientific evidence and knowledge of what industry best practices exist to minimize, prevent, or repair damage,” she said that “civil society groups and communities are weakened in their ability to adequately defend community interests.”

She added that industry experts are in a position to conduct tests, to ask pointed questions, to review scientific data and to help us assess situations that require scientific or technical knowledge which human rights defenders often don't have.

“Working in this way increases the credibility of our work and that of our partners,” she said.