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Science and Human Rights Workshop: July 26-26, 2005

On 25-26 July 2005, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program organized a two-day meeting for members of the scientific community and human rights organizations to discuss ways in which the scientific community can be pro-actively engaged in promoting human rights domestically. The goal of the meeting was to lay the groundwork for the development of a human rights network of scientists and scientific societies working on domestic human rights issues. The meeting provided, among other things, an opportunity to review ways in which science has already been applied to specific human rights concerns, including GIS mapping to identify potential famines, social science research to identify patterns of racial disparities in health care, indicators to measure environmental health and the use of budget analysis to measure compliance with the right to education.

As a resource on applying human rights to the United States, AAAS invited Ajamu Baraka, the Director of the United States Human Rights Network (USHRN). The Network works to build a human rights culture in the United States that puts those directly affected by human rights violations - with a special emphasis on grassroots organizations and social movements - in a central leadership role. Ajamu provided an overview of US involvement in human rights from the initial involvement of Eleanor Roosevelt in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to present issues and strategies of applying rights-based frameworks to domestic social justice concerns. He outlined several pressing issues for domestic human rights, including, post-9/11 curtailing of basic freedoms and civil liberties, treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, rights of immigrants, refugees, and undocumented workers, police brutality and injustices in US prisons, and basic issues with racial and economic disparities in health and housing. Much of the work of US-based organizations addressing human rights issues is to combat the notion of American exceptionalism and promote a wide range of advocacy strategies and public education campaigns to promote accountability to international human rights norms and standards.

AAAS also invited Hans Hogrefe, the Minority Director of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus to present an overview of how human rights issues are brought before Congress. The Human Rights Caucus bases its work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but limits that focus to international, not domestic, issues and specific cases. This limit has traditionally been imposed to avoid over-politicizing human rights issues and because the caucus is located in the International Relations Committee. However, Hans did provide some key insights as to how to approach both the Caucus and other Members of Congress on human rights issues. The most interesting point made is that there is a view on the Hill that scientists come at issues without an agenda. Therefore scientists can be very influential in presenting research and/or specific data in order to educate, rather than to push for a particular policy. He also cautioned the group to be careful to engage members of both parties or it is possible to lose legitimacy if you are seen as a think tank for a particular party. Despite the obvious constraints for domestic human rights work, it was useful to have a link inside Congress that speaks the "human rights language" and may be in a position to advise any future network on how to best work with Congress.

Forging a Network

The remaining time of the conference was used to organize the participants into topical area discussion groups. The participants were organized in three groups: health and human rights; discrimination/ environmental injustice/economic, social and cultural rights; and academic freedom/the right to education. Participants were asked to identify ways to leverage existing resources within the scientific sector - broadly defined - to be mobilized and utilized for the protection and promotion of human rights in the United States. Participants were challenged to be creative in thinking about what kind of resources can be put together to help network members of the scientific community-what kind of web-based resources can be created? What kind of activities and events could AAAS (or other societies) be organizing? What needs to be done to most effectively mobilize the scientific community on domestic human rights issues? How can AAAS make this network truly participatory, actively engaging scientific society partners and encouraging them to initiate new projects and collaborations when the occasion arises? The outcome of the breakout sessions were a series of specific recommendations for future resources, activities, and other outcomes.

During a session following one-a-half days of a breakout sessions, a delegate from each small group reported back about the nature of the discussion and debate in the group and presented specific recommendations. The following is a list of the recommendations made by each small group.

Group 1: Health and Human Rights

This group focused on finding ways to get existing research findings and studies to social justice and human rights advocates and to find ways to bridge gaps in understanding, culture, and language between the medical science community and advocates. They suggested the following activities and resources:

  • Evaluating and summarizing scientific data on for example, racial disparities in health, for use by advocates;
  • Developing guidelines to help scientists (in both the medical and general science community) to identify human rights violations in the scientific community;
  • Developing a contact database including information on research being done, methodology of research used, scientists doing human rights work;
  • Developing partnerships which foster communication between scientists and human rights advocates;
  • Producing reports, newsletters, press releases and outreach materials on the issues of health and human rights.

Group 2: Academic Freedom and the Right to Education

The academic freedom group was concerned with both access to education and the ethics of scientific professional societies. Their recommendations focused on finding ways to strengthen core scientific values and processes such as peer review as well as translating these safeguards to the public so that they could better understand the scientific process. Their recommendations in this area are to:

  • Find the links between professional society codes of ethics and human rights. This would involve organizing training for scientists on human rights issues that are tailored for each specific field, incorporating human rights workshops/trainings/lectures into ongoing annual meetings;
  • Call attention to the human rights elements of professional codes. This could involve having a collection of the ethical codes for each society and/or encourage societies to make a statement affirming the connections between ethical codes and human rights;
  • Highlighting the notion that the scientific community does engage in "self-policing" and to inform the public that these precautions exist and function well to ensure the credibility of science.

The group also focused heavily on public engagement issues with a concern that there was a public misperception of scientific information and manipulation of scientific data, which might be leading to the rise of the Academic Bill of Rights sponsored in several states that seek to politicize hiring of professors. They suggested:

  • Sponsoring communication training of scientists to better convey the significance of their findings to the public, but warned that scientists may resist this approach because of the implication that they are being asked to "dumb down" their work. One element of this training should be to dispel this conviction and emphasize the value of more widespread and accurate recognition of scientific research;
  • Developing discipline-specific guides to identifying what qualifies good data for the media and public. This could also involve explaining and reinforcing the value of peer review;
  • Developing a list of steps for scientists on communicating data to the media and collaborating with relevant groups, such as science journalists or Hill staffers involved in science committees.

The group was particularly interested in how human rights could be "mainstreamed" into science education in both the primary and secondary level. Their suggestions included:

  • Linking high school teachers who are interested and involved in science and human rights. This could become a means of disseminating information and materials to teachers and students;
  • Advocating for a discussion of human rights issues in science textbooks or creating modular courses about human rights/social justice for science classes.

Group 3: Discrimination/Economic, Social and Cultural Rights/Environmental Justice

This group chose to focus its discussion on the issue of linking scientists and advocates, identifying networking and the development of sustainable relationships as central goals. The group's proposed numerous activities, many of which echoed the recommendations of the other groups, such as:

  • Holding ongoing trainings on human rights at the meetings of scientific associations in order to educate scientists about human rights generally and the connections between their work and promoting and defending human rights;
  • Publishing articles about the connections between scientific and human rights in academic journals, magazines and websites. The goal of this would be to highlight existing connections and to discuss the needs of the human rights community to have access to good data and scientific expertise in their projects;
  • Working with human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to put one or more scientists on their board of directors as a way of formalizing links between the two communities;
  • Promoting joint funding projects between traditional science and human rights donors. One or a series of organizations could work to get the Human Rights Funders Group to meet with more traditional scientific funders, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and private science funders to think through joint funding of science and human rights projects. For example, the Integrative Graduate Education & Research Traineeship (IGERT) program of the National Science Foundation funds interdisciplinary work. It could be useful to explore prospects for an IGERT that funds a human rights issue;
  • Finding a way to participate formally in the United States Human Rights Network. At minimum, there should be cross-linking of websites, but perhaps a scientific caucus could be a new issue area for the USHRN;
  • Creating some means of communication (listserv or website or other media) to link NGOs who have a need for scientific expertise or contacts with the scientific community.

The group was also interested in how to engage science students in the area of human rights. To this end, they supported:

  • Sponsoring a prize for students engaged in research projects that have a clear human rights benefit. For example, a statistics student would need to study a data set as a requirement of their degree program. If they were able to study human rights data and the findings could be useful for a human rights organization, they would qualify for this prize;
  • Creating a type of clinic or science shop at universities that would be modeled after law school legal clinics and provide pro-bono scientific expertise to NGOs.

The group also proposed a program to engage science post-docs in human rights work:

  • Develop a fellowship program that would place Ph.D. scientists with NGOs. This would build capacity of NGOs to undertake research or analyze data and provide "real world" policy experience for scientists.


Scientific societies and academic associations have a certain amount of clout and prestige that would be an invaluable resource to promoting the full realization of human rights-both civil and political and economic, social and cultural-in the United States. In addition, there are several ways in which various fields of science can be applied to human rights issues. Scientists and academics have strongly supported many of the core values of human rights, such as freedom of expression and association. Over the last 30 years, many individual members of the scientific community and their respective societies have emerged as strong advocates for human rights around the world and are interested in promoting a human rights agenda in their own country. Hopefully the initiatives discussed above will be able to expand the historical activities undertaken by scientific organizations and coalesce the scientific community into a more united and powerful force for the promotion of human rights.