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Science Centers Promote the Human Right to Science, Broaden Participation

Three women in conversation in front of microphones
Jessica Wyndham, left, Margaret Weigers Vitullo and Shirley Malcom engage scientists and other collaborators during a livestreamed, international discussion about the human right to science. | Kathleen O’Neil

One of the human rights recognized by international law is the right to science, which means all people have a right to access, contribute to and benefit from scientific research. Scientists’ freedom to carry out research and publicize their results, and gender equity and equal opportunities in science are also part of the right.

For many, this is not yet a reality. A growing mistrust of science and lack of understanding about science are contributing to an increasing social divide, a group of science communicators concluded.

Organizations like science centers and museums can help bridge that gap by connecting the people they serve with scientists and helping them participate in and take some control and ownership over the process of doing science, said Cristin Dorgelo, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC). 

Dorgelo made the remarks at the end of an international livestreamed discussion of science as a human right among science center staff, ASTC leaders and their AAAS education and human rights counterparts and other collaborators. The two organizations linked participants together in recognition of UNESCO’s World Science Day for Peace and Development and International Science Center and Science Museum Day on November 10.

Jessica Wyndham, director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, has been working for the past decade to better define and raise awareness about the right to science, which she says is one of the least well-known rights.

The right to science was recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 27) identified by the United Nations in 1948, and subsequently incorporated into a binding treaty to which 169 countries are a party. The institutions participating in the livestreamed discussion are located in countries that ratified the treaty – Colombia, Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Spain – with the exception of the United States.

A man wearing glasses standing at a wooden podium
Walter Staveloz of ASTC joins the livestreamed international conversation about the vital role of science centers and museums in promoting science. | Kathleen O’Neil

“The right to science must be known by all of us,” Wyndham said. “For without our voices in demanding that the right be implemented, it will remain a forgotten right.” Science centers and museums can play an important role in educating people about this right, she said, and the tenets of the right can be used as a framework for their education efforts. For instance, they can consider how accessible and inclusive they are and how well they reflect the interests of their communities.

Margaret Weigers Vitullo, deputy director of the American Sociological Association, along with AAAS, surveyed scientists and engineers around the world asking them to rank the most important benefits of science, how the public should be able to access science and the obligations of the right.

Vitullo said respondents listed improved health, advancing knowledge and its economic impacts as the most important benefits and said the right requires the public to have varying access to science, services, products and scientific information depending on their expertise. Among the obligations they listed were ensuring access to products of science at a reasonable cost, ensuring freedom of speech, providing funding for science and reforming intellectual property law.

Shirley Malcom, AAAS senior adviser, expanded on those ideas. “It’s absolutely critical that science be shared with the public,” she said. Scientists should participate in education and public literacy efforts, such as those that are offered through science museums and science centers, she said, and dialogue with communities to learn what problems they need science to try to address.

After defining the right to science, the international science center participants identified some of the challenges they see in achieving those goals. Brigitte Luis Guillermo Baptiste, director of the Research Institute of Biological Resources Alexander Von Humbolt in Colombia, said that many people there don’t think scientists are doing enough to improve their lives, in part because their research is controlled by the government and the people often don’t see its benefits.

In countries “where indigenous knowledge is still alive, there’s many reasons to think that science is still a way of colonizing the territories – to impose some ways of seeing the world,” Baptiste said. “So, we need to think about what it means to build universal knowledge and what’s the role of local knowledge.”

 Mike Bruton, former director of South Africa’s Cape Town Science Centre said that similar concerns have given rise to a social media campaign calling on South Africans to reject “Western science” in their schools and universities for being white, European and colonizing.

While there is really only “one science,” the schools haven’t done a good enough job of informing students about African contributions to science, Bruton said, something its science centers can help correct. In fact, since becoming a democracy in 2004, South African science has become more inclusionary and representative of more people’s real needs, he added.

Camilla Rossi-Linnemann, head of international relations at the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci in Milan, Italy said science centers and science museums have a role in building citizenship. Many people in Italy and Europe are “opting out” of participating in science because they feel that science has accomplished everything or that it is doing things for them, so they don’t need to participate. Also, the pace of technological change and the information overload make it difficult to keep up and select relevant and correct data and interpretations.

“One thing that we’ve found is that giving the opportunity of meeting experts first-hand is key,” Rossi-Linnemann said. “It combats the growing problem of fake news,” since these people are flesh and blood individuals, accountable for their actions and who can attempt to answer specific questions.

In addition, public meetings sponsored by the Milan national museum include panels not only with scientists, but also philosophers, social scientists, athletes, artists and amateurs. This broadens the concept of what is considered relevant expertise for addressing scientific and societal problems, Rossi-Linnemann said, and encourages people to feel included as well as setting an example for a necessary interdisciplinary dialogue.

Many science centers think about how they can help facilitate a dialogue between the public and scientists, Dorgelo concluded, but whether it works “will come down to an openness to the other,” and being willing to consider a variety of perspectives.

[Associated image: Kathleen O’Neil]



Kathleen O'Neil

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