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A Brief History of the AAAS's Activities on Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law

Amy Crumpton
May 2011

The AAAS's commitment to engage issues involving scientific freedom, responsibility, and law has two historical beginnings marked by the establishment of a Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, born as a special committee in 1970 and made permanent in 1976, and by the establishment of the AAAS-ABA National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists in 1974. Since the mid-1970s, the CSFR and NCLS have focused on many issues on which AAAS has taken stands through resolutions, such as those concerning science and intellectual freedom, science and ethics, and science and human rights.

The history of AAAS is punctuated with debates by its leaders and members over issues concerning restrictions on intellectual freedom and how scientists and engineers should identify and exercise their social responsibilities. After 1945, as government funding fueled enormous growth in science and technology, such discussions had an impact on the AAAS's approach to how science might best serve society. In 1969, when the AAAS Board first suggested creating a special committee to draw up a statement concerning the freedom and responsibilities of scientists, association leaders, along with a number of other scientific societies, were looking into allegations that the Public Health Service was rejecting the appointment of scientists to study sections based upon the candidates' political views and affiliations. Not long after, Senators Edmund Muskie and Mike Gravel requested that AAAS investigate the treatment of molecular biologist John Gofman and biophysicist Arthur Tamplin, who believed that the Lawrence Berkeley Radiation Laboratory and the Atomic Energy Commission had taken reprisal actions against them for their criticism of AEC low-level radiation standards. By the end of 1969, student activists converged upon the AAAS annual meeting to protest what they viewed as irresponsible complicity by scientists with the military in perpetuating the Vietnam war.

The AAAS Board charged the new special Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, chaired by Allen V. Astin, former director of the National Bureau of Standards, "(i) to study and report on the general conditions required for scientific freedom and responsibility; (ii) to develop suitable criteria and procedures for the objective and impartial study of these problems; and (iii) to recommend mechanisms to enable the Association to review specific instances in which scientific freedom is alleged to have been abridged or otherwise endangered, or responsible scientific conduct is alleged to have been violated." Astin had first hand experience as to the pressures that government scientists could face working on politically charged issues with commercial consequences. In the early 1960s, Astin was forced to resign, then reinstated, as NSB director after refusing to withdraw a bureau report that found a California company's battery additive, AD-X2, to be of no technical value.


Harvard biologist John T. Edsall prepared the Committee’s report and submitted it to the Board in December 1974. In Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, the committee maintains that,

“Science is now inextricably intertwined with major political, social, and economic problems. These impose powerful stresses on many scientists who must deal with political issues that cannot be wisely resolved without the application of expert scientific knowledge. To maintain honesty and objectivity under such pressures is often very difficult, but it is essential if the scientist is to discharge his social obligations and maintain the integrity of science.” 

The report is replete with examples of the social controversies involving science and technology at that time - the biological and environmental effects of nuclear weapons testing, DDT and other dioxins, the use of defoliants and herbicides by the U.S. military in Vietnam, the safety of nuclear power plants, the ban on fetal research, a moratorium on recombinant DNA research, the need for human subject protections and informed consent in genetics research, the misuse of psychology as a tool for torture, the implications of national security controls on science; misconduct in science, and the role of and protections for whistleblowers - many of which continue to resonate in the science and society relationship of today. To view the 1975 report, click here

In 1976, the AAAS Board and Council jointly created a permanent Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility to develop policies and procedures to protect scientists, engineers and health care professionals against infringements of scientific freedom and responsibility, to monitor policies and actions taken by governments that might affect their professional rights and duties, and to promote attention to scientific freedom and responsibility within AAAS, its affiliated societies, and the general public. Geneticist H. Bentley Glass was the committee's first chair. The CSFR is the only AAAS committee that is sponsored by both the AAAS Board and Council. In February of 1977, the AAAS Council amended the AAAS Constitution to include "to foster scientific freedom and responsibility" as essential to the association's mission.

AAAS created an Office of Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, headed by Rosemary Chalk, to coordinate the CSFR’s activities which fell broadly into three areas - professional ethics, human rights, and science and society. Mark Frankel, the current director for the SRHRL Program, became head of the OSFR in 1986. Among the CSFR/OSFR early professional ethics initiatives, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asked the committee to review proposed regulations regarding issues of technical dissent with the agency, OSFR staff surveyed 241 professional societies asking them about the extent of their organization’s professional ethics issues and efforts, and the CSFR, the President’s Commission on Ethical Problems in Medicine and Research and the group Medicine in the Public Interest cosponsored a workshop on whistle blowing on fraud in biomedical research. On science and human rights issues, the committee held a workshop on scientific cooperation and human rights in the Americas in 1981, which led to the adoption of AAAS Council resolutions on human rights and scientific freedom. Beginning in 1984, CSFR supported international missions by teams of forensic anthropologists to investigate human rights abuses in countries such as Argentina, the Philippines, and Haiti. Further details on the committee’s activities on human rights may be found, in the history of the science and human rights program, below. In Striking a Balance: National Security and Scientific Freedom, the committee explored the impact of national security controls on scientific research and communications, a science and society issue that AAAS has monitored from at least the 1940s to the present.

In 1990 as the Office of Scientific Freedom and Responsibility became the Program for Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law, the AAAS-ABA National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists (NCLS) became a more integral part of the program’s scope. Back in late 1973, the American Bar Association approached AAAS to form a joint committee to promote better understanding of science among lawyers and judges and of the legal system among scientists. Established in 1974, the NCLS was first chaired by Emilio Q. Daddario, a former Congressman and then director of the Office of Technology Assessment, and attorney Harold Horvitz. Daddario viewed NCLS as a means for scientists and lawyers to understand their differing perspectives on what constitutes fact, truth, and acceptable evidence. From 1974 to 1992, NCLS was an activity within the set of AAAS science and policy programs, with Al Teich serving as its staff liaison. The committee continues to select co-chairs to provide leadership. NCLS monitors emerging issues that raise ethical, legal, or social concerns and brings them to the attention of policymakers as well as the legal and scientific communities. Topics have included the uses of scientific and technical information in the courts, scientific misconduct, and the effects of national security controls on scientific research. Recognizing the international dimensions of science and law, an NCLS delegation traveled to China in October 1988 to explore the intersection of law, science, and technology in that country. On occasion, NCLS has prepared amicus briefs on behalf of AAAS, such as in the 1993 U.S. Supreme Court case William V. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals.


The interests of the CSFR and the NCLS aligned well on many SFRL projects, conferences, publications, and AAAS annual meeting symposia such as on the ethical and legal implications of genetic testing; use of animals in research and education; scientific misconduct and research integrity; use of scientific and technical information in the courts; ethical and legal aspects of computer network use and abuse; effects of national security controls on unclassified research, and the impact of neuroscience on the legal system. SFRL also pursued projects exploring ethnic minority perspectives on values and ethics in science and technology as well as on emerging ethical issues for scientists and engineers in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In the newly reconstituted Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program, the missions of the CSFR and NCLS continue to complement one another as staff pursue projects such as continuing seminars for judges on neuroscience and the law, personalized medicine, the state and future of clinical trials, advocacy in science, understanding responsible research practices in changing research environments, and joint AAAS-China Association of Science and Technology workshops on science and ethics.

A Brief History of the AAAS Science & Human Rights Program

Amy Crumpton
July 2007

In 1976, AAAS established a standing Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility with a mandate that included monitoring infringements of scientific freedom at home and abroad. At the time, the persecution and disappearance of numerous scientists, along with thousands of other citizens, in Argentina and the plight of dissidents in the Soviet Union brought urgency to the committee's mission. Members of the committee "recognized that human rights are universal, and that scientists possess no rights that do not also belong to others." Yet, when those rights are violated, Dr. John Edsall - the eminent Harvard biochemist and a leading figure in creating the committee - argued that scientific associations "have not only a right but a responsibility to concern themselves with the defense of human rights of scientists." The committee drew upon a 1976 report on Scholarly Freedom and Human Rights, prepared by the British Council for Science and Society, which provided an overview of international declarations and conventions on human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The report also noted the need for scientists to communicate freely, to travel and attend meetings, and to exchange ideas, all rights essential for scientists to contribute effectively to the integrity and growth of science.

Clearinghouse on Science and Human Rights, 1977-1989

By late 1977, the committee created a Clearinghouse on Science and Human Rights to receive and review claims of persecuted foreign scientists and to refer the cases to appropriate professional scientific societies affiliated with AAAS for action. Such action included persistent letter-writing to U.S. and foreign officials on behalf of an individual, gathering information on his/her condition, and publicizing the case where appropriate. The Clearinghouse sponsored workshops and symposia on science and human rights and invited foreign scientists who had been victims of persecution and incarceration to come to the U.S. to share their experiences. The Clearinghouse took on the task of monitoring proposed political restrictions on U.S. visa requirements that could affect freedom of travel, an issue of concern to AAAS since the 1950s. The early activities of the Clearinghouse were administered by AAAS Human Rights Coordinators Thomas Johnston (1977-1978) and Bruce Alan Kiernan (1978-1980), and by Rosemary Chalk, head of the Office of Scientific Freedom and Responsibility from 1977 to 1986.

After the appointment of Eric Stover (1980-1990) to Clearinghouse Project Director in 1980, AAAS took on fact-finding missions to troubled countries. In 1984, in the wake of Argentina's return to civilian rule, President Raul Alfonsín and the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo - a nongovernmental human rights organization - requested technical assistance in exhuming mass graves of victims of the country's "dirty war" and in applying genetic screening techniques to determine grandpaternity of children born in detention or abducted from their parents and adopted by supporters of the previous regime. AAAS responded by sending a delegation of American forensic and genetic scientists to Argentina, including the renowned forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow. This mission fostered a major initiative to train young foreign scientists in forensic anthropology, as well as to train physicians, lawyers, archeologists and anthropologists to document and assemble evidence of crime in order to provide such evidence to courts and special commissions of inquiry. AAAS-trained teams investigated human rights abuses in Argentina, Brazil (1990), Guatemala (1992), Haiti (1995), and the Philippines (1986). This initiative helped give birth to the independent organizations Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF) and the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG), which continue to wrestle with the human rights legacies of their own countries and provide technical assistance to others.

Ethnic Albanian refugees registering at a camp outside Kukes, Albania. Photo by Fritz Scheuren


The Clearinghouse conducted fact-finding missions to the Philippines, Uruguay, Chile, and South Africa to analyze how health professionals may contribute to or resist the uses of torture and psychiatric abuse of citizens in countries with repressive governments. Related to this issue, the Clearinghouse also explored the problems and lack of resources faced by health professionals trying to provide services to treat refugees and survivors of torture and trauma. In 1989, AAAS representatives were part of a six-member delegation to South Africa to examine the role of South African health professionals with respect to human rights in that country and assess the effect that apartheid policies have had on the delivery of health care. Smaller missions, such as to Kenya (1988) to attend an inquest into the death of a man who had been tortured and document how the court applied the medical evidence, and to the Sudan (1990) to investigate the jailing of physicians and scientists, provided experiences for AAAS to contribute directly to individual human rights cases as well as learn lessons on the political and cultural complexities of human rights work. In the mid-1980s, the Clearinghouse, along with the American Statistical Association, began to explore how statistics might be used to measure human rights performance, an avenue of research that has taken on increasing importance.

Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP), 1989 to present

In 1990, as part of a reorganization of AAAS programs, the Office of Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, of which the Clearinghouse was a component, was merged into the newly-formed Directorate for Science and Policy Programs, headed by Albert Teich. Shortly thereafter, the Clearinghouse was transformed into the Science and Human Rights Program. In 1991, Audrey Chapman became Director, replacing Eric Stover, who left to serve as Executive Director of Physicians for Human Rights. In recognition of its pioneering work in science and human rights, the program received the first annual Human Rights Award from the American Psychiatric Association in May 1992.

Building on the tradition of letter-writing as a means of assisting scientists whose rights are violated by their governments, the program initiated the AAAS Human Rights Action Network (AAASHRAN) in 1993. AASHRAN became one of the earliest efforts to use the Internet to inform AAAS members and other subscribers of cases and developments involving scientists whose circumstances required special attention, and to coordinate scientists' efforts to appeal to governments on behalf of their colleagues. SHRP maintains an online archive of AAASHRAN alerts issued on behalf of 322 scientists in 46 countries since 1996. Beginning in 2007, SHRP will dedicate the Action Alerts to publicizing actions and campaigns by scientific associations and human rights organizations on behalf of scientists whose human rights are under threat, thereby providing them with a channel for reaching and engaging AAAS members.


Under Chapman, SHRP initiated efforts to contribute to the legal framing and monitoring of human rights internationally. In 1996, SHRP and the Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems International (HURIDOCS) - a global network of organizations concerned with information handling and documentation of human rights violations, began a three-year project to develop a "violations approach" to monitoring economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) as enumerated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The project offers a series of simple non-technical tools and resources, as well as a system that enables organizations to monitor ESCR violations. The scope and limitations of a right to health care and environmental protection are issues the program began to explore in the early 1990s. By 2000, SHRP designed a project on the relationship between environmental protection and the realization of many of the economic, social, and cultural rights enumerated in major international human rights accords. The project focused on the rights to health and to food, and the background research on the environmental factors affecting the realization of particular human rights became a resource for the human rights and environmental communities undertaking the development of standards, benchmarks, and indicators.


From 2002-2007, SHRP conducted a special project, Science and Intellectual Property in the Public Interest (SIPPI), that emphasized public interest approaches to ensure greater equity in access to scientific information and greater public participation in deliberating intellectual property policy. Article 15 of the ICESCR recognizes an intellectual property right of everyone to "benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he [or she] is the author." To support the rights of indigenous communities to assert more control over their environment and resources, SIPPI published a handbook in 2003 to help local peoples understand and identify mechanisms of the current intellectual property regime that might be advantageous or detrimental to the protection of their environments, biological resources, and traditional knowledge.

Dr. Audrey Chapman and Robert Lawrence testifying during South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation Commission hearings on health care sector violations of human rights.

As human rights organizations and commissions increasingly undertake investigations that require accurate and robust documentation to understand large-scale human rights violations - such as mass killings, genocide, deportations, ethnic cleansing, and systematic detention and torture - SHRP has developed statistical methodologies for documenting and analyzing such violations. Since the mid-1990s, the program has provided technical assistance and training to truth commissions, tribunals, ombudsmen, and nongovernmental organizations in Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Argentina, South Africa, Cambodia, East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Colombia, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. In 1996, SHRP participated in an evaluation of human rights violations in the healthcare sector by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (TRC). The program's long-standing commitment to the problems of human rights and the legacy of apartheid in South Africa led it to help found the African Transitional Justice Research Network (ATJRN) to assist local researchers and civil society organizations in African countries to effectively evaluate transitional justice mechanisms and strengthen human rights advocacy on the African continent.

A dramatic example of the use of statistics in the service of human rights occurred in March 2002, when the SHRP Deputy Director Patrick Ball presented evidence for the prosecution in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Ball's testimony was based on a statistical study, which he had carried out in collaboration with other statisticians and SHRP staff. The analysis of refugee movement and political killings in Kosovo in 1999 supported claims that both were the result of coordinated Yugoslav government policy. The work involved adapting statistical methods, cryptography and open source tools to collect, store and analyze human rights violations data. In 2002, the Human Rights Data Analysis Group led by Ball spun off from AAAS to become an independent non-profit organization, The Martus Group.

Continuing the tradition of applying scientific technologies to human rights, in 2005 SHRP undertook a project to evaluate the application of high-resolution satellite imagery and related geospatial technologies to human rights abuses and violations. Analysis of geospatial data can show, for example, land use patterns, population movements, destruction of structures, and changes in the environment, and can increase the ability of international organizations, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations to rapidly gather, analyze, and disseminate authoritative information, especially during times of crisis. Geospatial data also can provide more compelling, visual proof to support or disprove what various groups or governments claim to be true. For the human rights community, geospatial technologies can provide documentation to strengthen human rights campaigns and legal cases. To date, SHRP has applied these technologies to document violations in Chad, Darfur, Lebanon, and Zimbabwe, and to monitor the human rights situations in Burma and Sudan; the latter in collaboration with Amnesty International-USA through "Eyes on Darfur."

One of the primary goals of SHRP is to forge linkages among the scientific and human rights communities. In 2005, SHRP began building a coalition between human rights groups, scientific societies, and academic associations working on domestic human rights issues in the United States in order to foster better communication among groups producing scientific data and those looking to use such data. By engaging scientists through their professional associations and societies, the Science and Human Rights Coalition seeks to benefit from the scientific sector's existing resources and to develop new resources to meet the needs of human rights advocates for scientific research and expertise on a range of issues.

As AAAS's science and human rights efforts enter into their fourth decade - now under the direction of Mona Younis - developing new scientific tools and providing technical assistance to the human rights community remain keys to the program's future. Launched in 2007, SHRP's new initiatives build on its long experience of applying science to human rights ends and the strengths of its institutional home - AAAS - to respond to the current needs of the human rights field.