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A Growing Field: Scientific Knowledge to Aid Human Rights Efforts



AAAS’ Jessica Wyndham discusses need for candidates to outline their positions on scientific issues in advance of the 8 Nov. elections in an 11 Aug. interview on CNN en Espanol’s “Directo USA.” | Juan David Romero/AAAS

The fields of science, technology, engineering and medicine increasingly reach far beyond laboratories, inventions, creations and healing. 

Forensic anthropology, innovative genetic testing, statistical analysis and geospatial technology are some of the tools scientists use to collect evidence of mass executions, reunite children separated from their families, and track the destruction of cultural heritage sites in partnerships with non-profit organizations and human rights organizations dealing with atrocities unfolding across the globe.

Scientists representing an array of disciplines, engineers and medical professionals are being tapped to assist the organizations with the collection of objective, empirical evidence from mass graves, leveled villages, and forced resettlement areas. They are being called upon to document the destruction of historical treasures over time using geospatial technology.

Scientists are offering seminars for federal and administrative court judges on issues as varied as the neuroscience behind pain, drug addiction and the adolescent brain. AAAS is also working on a global survey from which it hopes to help articulate the social responsibilities of scientists and engineers.

The organization has also assembled some 1,000 scientists, engineers and medical professionals at the ready to work on pro-bono basis to help non-profits and human rights organizations on issues as varied as studying the potential for oil development in Kenya by examining unique geological conditions and assessing the potential for detrimental effects on local water quality.

In addition, scientific societies are collaborating to defend the human rights of scientists – some attacked for pursuing research topics that draw charged political opposition, a danger Sir Paul Nurse, the former president of Britain’s Royal Society, likened to “trying to rubbish the science” in an interview with The New York Times, others imprisoned for refusing to use their knowledge for destructive purposes.

Consider Omid Kokabee, a 34-year-old Iranian doctoral student, whose ordeal shows the power of scientific organizations joining together to apply international pressure to defend the human rights of scientists. Kokabee was granted parole – known as “conditional freedom” – and released from custody in Iran at the approval of the Iranian judiciary on 29 August after serving more than five years of a 10-year sentence, he confirmed in an email exchange. “There is no other condition and I am free to leave the country,” he said in an email.

Kokabee was arrested at the airport in Tehran in 2011 as he sought to return to the University of Texas at Austin where he was working on a PhD in physics. He was charged and eventually convicted of having “relations with a hostile government” and receiving “illegitimate” funds. Kokabee has said he was jailed for declining to assist the military with projects.

AAAS presented Kokabee with the 2014 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award in absentia “in recognition of his willingness to endure imprisonment rather than apply his scientific expertise for destructive purposes and for his efforts to provide hope and education to fellow prisoners,” said Alan Leshner, then AAAS CEO and executive publisher of Science in a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei requesting Kokabee’s release. The letter was co-signed by Kate Kirby, chief executive officer of the American Physical Society.

The American Physical Society had earlier awarded Kokabee its Adrei Sakharov Prize for “his courage in refusing to use his physics knowledge to work on projects that he deemed harmful to humanity.” The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Amnesty International, the Committee of Concerned Scientists, Nobel laureates and other organizations publicly pressed for his release.

“Of course, AAAS’ 2014 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award helped me and all other people specially academics who were seeking my freedom in Iran,” he said. The award, he added, amplified his situation and helped rally international pressure “with much louder voice from one of the most well-known scientific societies in the world.”

At AAAS, this sweeping array of activities falls under the purview of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights & Law program, led by Jessica Wyndham, recently named interim director of the group. Wyndham, a lawyer by training with deep experience with human rights and scientific work, said it was AAAS’s commitment to this expansive approach to science that drew her to the organization.

Wyndham’s expertise in this area led the American Psychological Association in late July to invite her to serve on its Task Force on Human Rights established after an April 2015 report asserted that the association had worked with U.S. government officials on its terrorism prisoner interrogation and torture program set up during the George W. Bush administration following the 2001 terrorist attacks.   

While non-profit and human rights organizations may want carefully collected evidence to further their positions or strengthen legal cases wending their way through the European Court of Human Rights, among other judicial institutions, scientists and engineers bring rigorous scientific methodology and practices to such work, Wyndham said.

Scientists are not collaborating with outside groups to prove an injustice, but rather to collect data to answer specifically defined research questions, noted Theresa Harris, senior program associate for the program.

Wyndham and Harris said AAAS carefully vets the groups and organizations with which it partners. AAAS also has in-house programs able to issue technical reports, conduct surveys and collect data, all of which are published independently, and made available for use for advocacy and public policy recommendations. It has published guidelines to help other scientific organizations navigate alliances between scientists and human rights organizations.

The scientific role in this area grew out of the 1948 adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly its Article 27 which stated that “everyone has the right freely to participate … and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

How to put that declaration into practice is an effort that has spread over decades as additional human rights treaties and covenants have been adopted and governments have voluntarily indicated their intention to be bound by their terms. Scientific organizations, such as AAAS, continue to work to define and establish pathways to ensure the public shares in the advances and benefits of science, and that the scientific community, itself, wields its knowledge for the benefit of society, Wyndham said.

An important turning point came in April 2010 when AAAS’ board recognized the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications as a core tenant of its mission, Wyndham said. This led to a years-long effort that Wyndham spearheaded in which AAAS established 17 multidisciplinary organizations seeking to outline ways scientific organizations, across disciplines, could consistently deliver quality education in the field of science, technology, engineering and medicine and boost the diversity of those participating in the field. AAAS presented its findings to the U.N. in the fall of 2013.

“The contribution our research has made is ongoing,” Wyndham said. “It’s fair to say, though we don’t have the final product out of the U.N., that the rights, the responsibilities, the unique interests and perspectives of the STEM community are now firmly seen as being part of this right.”

Going forward, Wyndham said much work will go into the global survey of what scientists consider to be their social responsibilities. The National Science Foundation is funding the effort, and AAAS is targeted to have the survey and its sample design completed by year’s end.

“With greater recognition of the impact of science on society, and the increasing demand for scientists to be a part of, and recognize, the social context in which they are operating, there is a lot of debate and discussion about what the role of the scientist should be in society,” Wyndham said. “But there is not a strong empirical understanding of what scientists believe to be their social responsibilities.”

That will come in the next year or so, Wyndham added, when the survey results will be analyzed and available to inform the distribution of educational resources, or expand scientific codes of ethics to widen their perspective beyond an inward, professional application to the outward role scientists play to the benefit of society.