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AAAS Report Helps Define "Right to Science" for UN Treaty

A new report from AAAS' Science and Human Rights Coalition offers guidance on implementing a United Nations treaty that recognizes a universal right to enjoy the benefits of science.

The report, provides a unique perspective on the meaning, application and barriers to the implementation of "the right to scientific progress and its applications," as contained in Article 15 (1)(b) of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. The United States has not ratified this treaty, although speakers at a Coalition event earlier this year said that U.S. policies support the values and principles behind Article 15.

Over the course of 18 months, the Coalition convened 17 focus groups of 145 U.S. scientists to define carefully the societal benefits of science, access to its data and applications, and restrictions on this access. The Coalition began its work after the AAAS Board of Directors adopted a statement in 2010, stating that "the right lies at the heart of the AAAS mission."

The focus group participants included researchers, educators and administrators from the biological, physical, and social sciences, engineering and health professions. Jessica Wyndham, associate director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, and Margaret Weigers Vitullo, director of academic affairs of the American Sociological Association, presented findings from the focus groups at a 3-4 October meeting in Geneva, Switzerland that was organized by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The ultimate goal is to provide an authoritative interpretation of Article 15 (1)(b) for the 160 UN member states that have ratified the treaty and are responsible for implementing its terms. In the formal UN process of defining the terms of treaties, Wyndham explained, "the treaty-monitoring committee needs to develop what is referred to as a General Comment. This document usually addresses one right recognized in the relevant treaty, translating the often vague and amorphous language of the treaty into practical guidelines on how to implement a right, limitations to the right and examples of how the right is violated in practice."

The top benefits to society from scientific progress, according to the focus group participants, pertain to health, the environment, education and training, advancing knowledge and providing an empirical basis for laws and government policies.

Researchers in the groups focused on the need to preserve scientific processes and data; and to develop science through a free and international exchange of ideas and people, and through adequate funding. They also suggested that it was a "moral obligation" to communicate science as broadly as possible, among scientists themselves and between scientists and the public.

Governments must also strike a balance between research regulations that protect scientists from political pressure without "stifling the freedom indispensible for scientific research and creative activity," the groups concluded.

Until the Coalition began the focus group process, "scientists, engineers and health professionals had not been actively engaged in the nascent process of defining this right," Wyndham said. "Yet their perspective is so critical to understanding the meaning of the right, identifying steps for its implementation, and outlining current limitations in the exercise of this right in practice."

Read the AAAS Board of Directors statement on the human right to the benefits of scientific progress.

Read the AAAS report, "Defining the Right to Enjoy the Benefits of Scientific Progress and Its Applications: American Scientists' Perspectives."