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New AAAS Hotline Offers Scientific Expertise for Human Rights Groups

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This satellite image shows a gravesite in Maiduguri, Nigeria, that was the subject of an investigation by Amnesty International and forensic anthropologist Tal Simmons. The scientist, who was originally connected with the organization through AAAS' On-call Scientists program, analyzed skeletal remains from the gravesite and helped investigators learn more about the deceased. | Amnesty International

Human rights organizations are now able to tap the scientific knowledge of a forensic anthropologist and nine other scientists, engineers and health professionals in real-time, thanks to a service the American Association for the Advancement of Science has recently launched.

Tal Simmons, a forensic science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, can analyze photographs of skeletal remains and help human rights groups collect data to deepen their understanding of what happened to the deceased.

Simmons was approached by AAAS in October 2017 to participate in the On-call Scientists Hotline. She hopes that the new service will provide a direct and rapid channel through which human rights organizations can find answers and expertise.

“People don’t necessarily go looking for dead bodies but they come across them,” said Simmons. “I hope they’re going to be able to get some advice closer to real-time in terms of investigation and documentation.”

The On-call Scientists Hotline, which began taking requests on March 6, is a product of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program. The service is designed to supplement the existing On-call Scientists program, which has connected scientists with human rights organizations since 2008.

“What they do is make sure that the work that human rights groups are doing is evidence-based,” said Theresa Harris, a project director in the SRHRL program who manages the newly-expanded On-call Scientists program, of the role participating scientists are playing.

Human rights workers can use the service by sending an email message to the hotline or via phone by calling Harris directly. The hotline volunteers can aid human rights groups in a variety of ways, from reviewing environmental impact assessments to managing data and designing surveys.

Simmons was moved to apply her scientific expertise to human rights work by an earlier experience during the conflict in Bosnia the 1990s. She became the director of the Forensic Monitoring Project for Physicians for Human Rights in Tuzla, Bosnia in 1997, while on sabbatical.

“I thought to myself, ‘When else will I have the opportunity to get involved?’” said Simmons.

During this time, Simmons trained crime scene investigations in the former Yugoslavia in basic techniques of evaluating skeletal remains.

Simmons stopped working with Physicians for Human Rights in 1999, and when she heard that AAAS was looking for volunteers to participate in the original On-call Scientists program, she saw it as another opportunity to get involved.

After AAAS matched Simmons with Amnesty International, she collaborated with the human rights organization on several projects, including an investigation of deaths during military detention in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Simmons examined photos and video of bodies to determine how long they had been deceased, as well as their gender and age. Amnesty International went on to issue a report that incorporated Simmons’ data and analysis, along with eye witness reports and satellite imagery of possible mass graves.

While the original On-call Scientists program was well-suited for such in-depth projects, the hotline is meant to be a resource for human rights groups who need more immediate answers.

Attorney Eric Jantz was among the contributors who provided feedback that helped AAAS develop the new hotline. He works with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which assists communities around the state, particularly indigenous populations, that are seeking to preserve the health of their air, land and water.

Jantz and the NMELC have regularly enlisted since 2014 the help of engineers, hydrologists and other experts through the On-call Scientists program. Environmental litigation always involves a need for science and technical expertise in some capacity, said Jantz.

Having access to scientists and engineers who can assess the strength of an Environmental Protection Agency cleanup plan has been “incredibly helpful,” Jantz said.

The hotline will be useful, Jantz said, for situations in which the NMELC needs a quick answer to a technical question instead of assistance with developing a long-term project.

“In those cases it’s really handy to have someone able to clear that up,” said Jantz.

For Harris, the hotline can also serve as a starting point for human rights groups which are not yet sure of their needs but understand that science can benefit their work.

“You don’t know what to ask for if you don’t know what’s possible,” said Harris.

[Associated image: Forensic anthropologist Tal Simmons used Amnesty International images to analyze skeletal remains found at this gravesite. She was able to determine the age, gender and other traits of the deceased. Simmons originally began assisting Amnesty International after being matched with the organization through AAAS’ On-call Scientists program.  | Amnesty International]

Author

Stephen Waldron