Human Rights Coalition Deepens Understanding of the Right to Science

Jessica Wyndham and Margaret Weigers Vitullo, co-authors of a new report on the right to access the benefits of science, speak at the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting on July 27. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

The right of all people to benefit from scientific progress is spurring new research by science and human rights practitioners and informing organizations how to secure those benefits, according to presenters at a AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting, held July 27-28 in Washington.

The right to science is enshrined not only in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, but also in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, said Jessica Wyndham, interim director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program and a coordinator of the Science and Human Rights Coalition.

The international provision requires governments to ensure the right of everyone “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, to conserve, develop and diffuse science, to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and to recognize the benefits of international contacts and cooperation in science,” Wyndham said. A total of 165 countries are party to the treaty, which the United States has signed but not ratified.

The right to science is the subject of a new report, “Giving Meaning to the Right to Science: A Global and Multidisciplinary Approach,” developed by AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program and Science and Human Rights Coalition and released in conjunction with the meeting. The report can provide “a foundation for a shared understanding of the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications,” said Margaret Weigers Vitullo, director of academic and professional affairs at the American Sociological Association.

The multi-method, multi-year study sought to examine and contextualize scientists’ perspectives on the right to enjoy the benefits of science, surveying scientists in the United States and around the world on the most important benefits of science, Vitullo said. Among U.S. scientists, the most frequently cited benefits of science are improving health, advancing knowledge and protecting wildlife and the environment. Differences emerged among different scientific disciplines and regions of the world, with respondents outside the U.S. far more often ranking economic development as a top benefit of science, Vitullo noted.

Survey respondents also explored why scientific advances in the areas of health care and clean water, are so important.

“Respondents discussed how unjust distribution and access to advances in science and technology can create vast inequalities that undermine societal stability and function,” Vitullo said.

Survey respondents also identified key government obligations to support access to science, including increasing funding for scientific infrastructure and research, providing adequate public education in scientific disciplines, promoting a positive view of scientists among the public, ensuring open access to scientific information, and promoting and protecting academic freedom, Wyndham said.

The continued exploration of the meaning and implications of the right to science among scientists will inform the official interpretation of the right to science that the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is currently developing, Wyndham said. “The scientific community needs to remain engaged as that process comes to fruition.”

Continually deepening understanding of the right to science as outlined in Article 15 is also assisting advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations to ensure populations have equal access to a key benefit identified by scientists: health.  

Mike Frick, senior project officer for the Treatment Action Group, which advocates for research to overcome HIV, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis, explained how the right to science has come to inform TAG’s work on tuberculosis in particular.

“Despite the natural concordance of our work with the principles and ideas embodied in Article 15, we didn’t always put our work into a ‘right to science’ context,” said Frick.

TB is currently the leading killer among infectious diseases globally, despite being preventable and treatable, Frick said. This has led to a dearth of TB research, so TAG has focused on the obligations of governments to encourage further research based on the responsibilities enumerated in Article 15 to develop and diffuse science, Frick said.

To ensure that the benefits of science reach communities “widely and equitably,” TAG has called upon governments to increase funding for TB research and better disseminate information and results among the scientific community and the public, Frick said.

TAG has also used the right to science as a way to frame their community mobilization campaigns, particularly to engage people who might not otherwise feel that they will benefit from scientific progress, he added.

“Many people often feel very far away from science and the fruits of its advancement,” Frick said.  “In order to bridge that gap and reduce it, Article 15 offers us an approach and a strategy that we can use in our advocacy.”

[Associated image credit: Trygve Berge/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]