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AAAS Unveils Center for Scientific Responsibility and Justice

AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program has a new name to reflect an evolution in its mission: AAAS Center for Scientific Responsibility and Justice.

Under the new banner, the program will leverage its expertise to move beyond building awareness to a new model that empowers scientists and engineers to pursue justice by advancing trustworthy science – science that is conducted and communicated responsibly, upholding the values of scientific freedom and human rights, including the right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.

”It’s important that AAAS is prioritizing trustworthy science at this moment of significant global change. Science must have a central role in navigating how society handles pandemics, emerging technologies, and climate change. That will require trust in science, which isn’t something that just happens. Trust needs to be earned through collaborative actions and shared values such as transparency and accountability," said Theresa Harris, who leads the Center. Harris is overseeing the transition as the Center’s director, a role she assumed in September after more than a decade with the program.

The program’s history dates to 1970, when AAAS first established a special Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility to address issues at the intersection of science and intellectual freedom, ethics and human rights. Its first report grappled with a range of timely topics, such as the effects of DDT, nuclear power plant safety, and the threats to the human rights of scientists. Over the years, the structure and specific projects have evolved, ranging from the rights of whistleblowing scientists to the use of geospatial data to track human rights abuses.

In 2011, the Science and Human Rights Program and the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program were joined into one program renamed Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law.

Now, the program continues to meet the present moment. The AAAS Center for Scientific Responsibility and Justice emerges into a landscape of eroding trust in science and questions about who takes part in the scientific enterprise or who reaps its benefits, Harris noted. And as cutting-edge science and new technologies continue to emerge, those discoveries will continue to pose new ethical questions – and potentially deepen mistrust in science.

“The Center envisions – and is working toward – a world where we can achieve scientific excellence responsibly, ethically and inclusively to broaden our impact on society and uphold the rights and dignity of everyone,” said Harris.

Guided by two foundational documents – Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which articulates the Human Right to Enjoy the Benefits of Scientific Progress and its Applications, and AAAS’ own 2017 Statement on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility – the Center aims to build an ecosystem where trustworthy science can thrive. By creating a platform for scientists and engineers to connect with the legal community, the human rights community and underserved communities, the Center will make the case for the necessity of the right to science and science in service of the public interest.

Several key priorities will guide the program’s activities to ensure real impacts in pursuit of this vision of justice.

The Center will provide professional support for scientists to help them apply the values of trustworthy science in their daily work. One evolving initiative will focus on the ethics of an emerging technology: artificial intelligence. The Center will provide “Responsible AI” training, playbooks and other resources for scientists and engineers in the private sector to apply responsible principles to their real-world research and development.

The Center will also continue to recognize those scientists, institutions and organizations that exemplify the principles of scientific freedom and responsibility and apply the values of trustworthy science to their work, often at great risk, with the annual AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award.

Another priority is increasing trust in science with communities that have not benefited from scientific progress. Its SciTech and Human Rights FutureGen Scholars program, launched in 2021, supports undergraduate and graduate students with a stipend and mentorship as they pursue a project on their campus or local community at the intersection of science, technology and human rights. The scholars’ projects often focus on engaging and collaborating with communities who have been excluded from the practice of science or have not enjoyed the benefits of science.

The Center will also continue its longstanding commitment to the judiciary’s understanding of scientific and technological issues. The Judicial Seminars on the Opioid Epidemic, for example, provides judges and court personnel in the states with the latest scientific information about opioid addiction and treatment.

The Center will also continue its AAAS On-Call Scientists platform first launched in 2008, which connects volunteer scientists, engineers and health professionals with communities in need of scientific and technical support. The platform aims to forge deeper bonds and encourage greater ownership and investment by focusing on longer-term collaborative projects.

The program’s third priority is developing and sustaining infrastructures and institutions that promote, protect and defend scientific freedom and responsibility, continuing to cultivate connections with other scientific associations and academies to protect and provide professional support for scientists who are displaced or whose safety is at risk.

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition will continue to be a platform for the connections that the Center seeks to strengthen. Since 2009, the network of scientific and engineering membership organizations has brought together those who recognize a role for scientists and engineers in human rights and connected leaders who are advancing diversity, equity, accessibility and justice within their respective disciplinary associations.

“With decades of experience and a vast network of collaborators, this program has worked to ensure that practicing scientists are truly able to be leaders in ethics, scientific integrity, and social responsibility,” said Julia MacKenzie, chief program officer at AAAS. “Their revitalized strategic vision and plan underscores this strength, and goes further, to actively link that trustworthy scientific ecosystem both to communities that have not historically benefited from scientific progress and to the intersection of S&T and the legal system.”


Andrea Korte

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