Skip to main content

Human Right to Science Headlines AAAS Conference

A plenary panel at the AAAS Science, Technology and Human Rights Conference focused on the human right to science. | Courtesy of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition

Last month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science convened the scientific and human rights communities to explore effective partnerships between the two and develop collaborative approaches to solve ongoing human rights challenges.

Presented each year since 2009 by the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, the Science, Technology and Human Rights Conference connects human rights practitioners with scientific knowledge and provides STEM professionals with an avenue to address human rights through their research and practice. This year’s conference, held Oct. 22 and 23, included workshops, panel discussions, and keynote addresses on topics including housing policy, ensuring participation of the differently abled in the natural sciences, and the ethics of coronavirus-related human challenge trials, in which participants are deliberately exposed to an infectious disease in the name of vaccine development.

Normally hosted at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., the conference went virtual for the first time this year, allowing it to reach and engage a wider global network. Among the attendees were human rights leaders, academic researchers, industry scientists, government officials, members of vulnerable communities, and STEM students.

“One of the upsides of the way we’re working is that we are able to have a broader audience for this important conference,” said AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh in introductory comments to the group. “In a time where there are many things not to be thankful for, that is something to be thankful for.”


The Right to Science

The conference’s first plenary panel focused on the human right to science. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which contained a passage acknowledging the right of everyone to “share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

In 1966, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a binding treaty to which 171 countries are a party, elaborated upon the right to science. Unlike for most human rights, however, the scope of the right and its meaning in practice was not articulated, making it easy to ignore.

“Recognition of a right in a treaty means little if governments responsible for implementing the right and civil society concerned with advocating for the right and monitoring it, don’t know what the right really means,” said Jessica Wyndham, director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program and coordinator of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, while moderating the panel discussion.

In 2010, AAAS began engaging the scientific community on the topic, bringing their perspectives to the UN to aid in crafting a comprehensive definition. In April, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights published a general comment with a definitive interpretation of the right to science, incorporating several of the key contributions of the scientists engaged by AAAS.

“Mission accomplished? Well, not really,” Wyndham said. “It’s really mission launched. The groundwork has now been laid for the real work to begin, using the right as a tool to effect change.”

Rebecca Everly, one of the session’s panelists, directs the Committee on Human Rights at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, as well as the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies. She noted that the most immediate impact of the UN general comment will likely be its utility as “an important new tool in the toolkit of advocacy for scientific freedom.”

The organizations that Everly leads coordinate efforts to advocate for scientists who come under attack as a result of their research or other professional activities. In many cases, these researchers are subject to death threats, trials, or indefinite detainment in retaliation for publicizing findings seen as critical to their governments’ policies.

In setting up private meetings and authoring submissions to international and regional bodies that hear human rights complaints, Everly’s team relies on international law — most often the rights to freedom of expression and association — to make their case. Now, with the UN’s articulation of the meaning of the right to science, states must protect the rights of individuals to benefit from scientific progress without discrimination, access quality science education, participate in science, and receive information about the risks and benefits of technology.

“The right to science — and specifically this piece regarding scientific freedom — it’s like a missing piece of the puzzle,” Everly said.

Gisa Dang, a health and human rights consultant at Treatment Action Group, a research and policy think tank focused on developing better treatment for and prevention of HIV, tuberculosis, and Hepatitis C, echoed Everly’s excitement.

“The adoption of the general comment on the right to science is a major event for human rights advocacy,” Dang said. “We had little basis for arguments. But now, we have this authoritative language and an explanation for how the right is supposed to be understood.”

“With this general comment, we can move away from our lonely desk research to organizing,” she added. “We can create educational materials — toolkits, guides, workshops — so that people can better understand the right and how it applies to them and their situations.”


Challenges to Equity in Cities

A panel discussion on the second day of the conference focused on how the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated existing human rights concerns related to urban infrastructure in the United States.

Matthew Palm, a professor at Worcester State University whose research centers on affordable housing and transportation equity, noted that many municipalities reduced public transportation service in the hopes of mitigating the virus’s spread. Alternative modes of transportation, such as bike-sharing networks, increased in wealthier neighborhoods, leaving many families in poverty without access to health care, groceries, and more.

Ariel Bierbaum, a professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland, highlighted similar problems faced by the country’s approximately 50 million public school students. For many K-12 students, including the roughly 13 million experiencing hunger and 1.5 million experiencing homelessness, school provides a source of stability, with consistent access to meals and health care. The recent transition to remote learning has increased the vulnerability of these children, Bierbaum said.

“The closure of these school buildings deactivates these same resources,” she said.


Toward a More Inclusive STEM Enterprise

In his introductory comments to conference attendees, Parikh, CEO of AAAS, presented the organization’s own efforts to contribute to the recent outpouring of social and racial justice initiatives across the country.

On Oct. 30, AAAS published a report that compiles demographic data on the association’s leadership and functions, including honorary Fellows, Science and Technology Policy Fellows, award winners, governing bodies and Science family of journals’ authors and reviewers. The report provides a baseline accounting of demographic data that AAAS will release on an annual basis to inform its programs and initiatives in diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We believe that transparency leads to accountability,” Parikh said. “Together, we’re going to take this opportunity born of tragedy in 2020 — a year that I am looking forward to the end of, and I’m sure you all are as well — and really make progress from this.”

“What separates the generations that make progress and those that don’t is keeping the momentum, keeping the conversation alive about the issues that matter,” he added. “And making sure that we are broadening who does science and for whom science is done. Both those apertures need to open.”