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Right to Science Exemplars: Right to Benefit from Science

The following exemplars demonstrate how the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress may be realized in practice, whether by ensuring access to new technologies, or by extending access to existing scientific developments, with a particular focus on vulnerable and marginalized populations.

These exemplars also reflect an underlying principle of international human rights law: that all human rights are interdependent and indivisible. The Access to Medicines exemplar demonstrates how ensuring access to the benefits of medical treatments also serves to further the right to health, for example. Similarly, the Solar Power exemplar reveals how ensuring access to technology can contirbute to the realization of the rights to education and health, among other rights.

Providing access to safe drinking water

Water is vital to life, whether for drinking and cooking, proper sanitation, or agricultural production. Yet in Bangladesh, a nation of 134 million inhabitants, 30 million people lack access to safe drinking water due to high levels of arsenic contamination. Initially slow to respond, over the past five years the government has convened a cadre of chemists, hydrogeologists, environmental engineers, and other scientists to respond systematically to this challenge.

Beginning in the 1970s, the government constructed millions of tube-wells in order to provide access to groundwater, considered a safe alternative to disease-bearing surface water. However, it was soon discovered that the groundwater was contaminated with arsenic, believed to originate in the rock of the Himalayas and flow downstream to Bangladesh. When consumed in large quantities, arsenic has a devastating effect on the body, leading in many cases to death.

In 1995, the School of Environmental Studies at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, India, convened a conference to address the arsenic crisis facing both West Bengal and Bangladesh. The following year, the World Health Organization published a report outlining the results of laboratory tests on arsenic-contaminated tube-wells. Thus, awareness of the arsenic problem increased at the international level, precipitating an increase in national attention. In 1996, the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) launched the Arsenic Mitigation and Measurement Project (AMMP), which immediately set about researching the extent of arsenic contamination in the groundwater of northern and southern Bangladesh.

The AMMP was a joint initiative, launched with the support of UNICEF, among others, and financed in 2000 by a UN Foundation Grant of US$2.5 million. The sophisticated strategy implemented under the auspices of the Project consists of: the screening of all tube-wells in the high-risk areas, followed by laboratory tests of the samples; improving laboratory facilities for water testing; training health professionals to improve and increase diagnoses of arsenic poisoning; and raising public awareness of the health crisis.

Several positive outcomes have arisen from the project: at the time of writing, 1,273,000 tube-wells have been screened for arsenic; 8,000 arsenic testers have been taught how to sample well water; 15,000 health workers have been trained, including 1,600 doctors who have been educated to diagnosis arsenicosis; 3,700 safe water alternatives (e.g., pond sand, and household filters) have been constructed with the help of local communities; and more than 15 million people have been instructed about the dangers of arsenic contamination.

[Based on a report from UNICEF on the Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation and Measurement Project.]

Access to medicines

Good health is fundamental to human well-being, but is often out of reach for marginalized and disadvantaged communities unable to access vital medicines. This inability to obtain treatment contributes to millions of deaths each year, but governments can advance citizens health by broadening access to advances in biomedicine, as Brazil has done in a national response to HIV/AIDS that has not only significantly improved the lives of those living with the disease, but also reduced the number of new infections.

Since the 1980s, HIV/AIDS has become an issue of increasing significance in Latin America and the Caribbean, where more than two million people are living with HIV/AIDS (a total greater than the HIV/AIDS populations of the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and Western Europe combined). AIDS was first diagnosed in Brazil in 1982. In 1985, in conjunction with civil society advocacy groups, the government established a National AIDS Program to provide HIV education to high-risk groups. The 1988 Constitution of Brazil, a victory for advocates, provided a legal basis for free healthcare. While no direct reference to HIV/AIDS is made, the Constitutional requirement of free healthcare served as the basis for regulations on how physicians and researchers were to treat the disease. However, it was not until the mid-1990s that important strides were made towards addressing the needs of HIV/AIDS patients. When HAART, a regimen of antiretroviral medications (ARVs), was demonstrated to help those suffering from AIDS, civil society groups again pushed the government into action, this time to provide HAART free of cost to HIV-positive patients. Between 2001 and 2005, government spending on anti-retroviral drugs doubled to US$495 million.

In the early 1990s, the World Bank predicted that by 2000, 1.2 million Brazilians would have HIV. Because of civil society and government efforts, the actual number of HIV patients in 2000 was 600,000  half the projected number. Since the late 1990s, AIDS-related hospitalizations have fallen 70-80%. Furthermore, by 2005, the number of Brazilians dying of AIDS-related diseases had been cut by half. The ARV drug program is utilized by 80% of Brazilians with HIV.

More recently, in 2007 Brazil made the controversial decision to break a patent on Efavirenz, an AIDS treatment drug manufactured by Merck & Co. Inc, after price negotiations between the company and the Brazilian government stalled. Through the compulsory licensing of Efavirenz, Brazil is purchasing a generic form of the drug for $0.45 per pill from India less than half the price Merck had offered saving the Brazilian government $30 million in 2007 and $236.8 million by 2012. Compulsory licensing, a measure available in times of public health emergency, allows Brazil to continue its highly effective national HIV/AIDS health care strategy.

Solar power

Access to energy is critical for the provision of education, health, and a clean environment. Governments can improve energy availability by furthering citizens access to the benefits of science and technology, as Burundi has done by successfully utilizing renewable solar energy to power inaccessible rural areas, with significant positive effects for living standards of residents.

The national electricity network of Burundi is only accessible to 2% of the countrys six million residents, and 90% of those with electricity reside in the capital city, Bujumbura. Despite the governments attempts at expanding the electricity network, most rural communities are still entirely without power, due in part to internal conflict and ensuing funding issues.

In 1997, the government began investigating the use of low-cost, environmentally sound and easily integrated photovoltaic (PV) solar panels to provide power to rural communities. Site selection for a pilot project was undertaken carefully. The government sought a location that was remote, had no plans for connection to the national power system, and had a significant need for electricity. The government also ensured that the project would have the support of the local community. The chosen site was the Gasezerwa health centre, which was established in 1980 and serves the surrounding rural area with health and family planning services, as well as a laboratory. Burundis Energy Department received $20,000 from UNESCO to fund the project, while the government reduced costs by instituting tax-reduction policies on the importation of PV equipment. Before construction began, seven community members were selected and trained to manage and maintain the new PV system. The community was informed and engaged with pamphlets, radio question-and-answer sessions, and publicity spots.

The project has been a success: the hospital has electricity for the clinic ward and maternity building, as well as general lighting and sterilization facilities. At the time of writing, the Burundian Center of Alternative Energy Studies was testing an energy-efficient refrigerator, soon to be added to the hospital to store temperature-sensitive vaccines and medications. The success of the project led to the implementation of a second phase; the provision of electricity to the local community college, allowing students to study at night, has resulted in improved exam results. Local businesses have begun to stock the materials needed to maintain the PV system, reflecting community awareness regarding the benefits of solar-powered energy.

Information technology

The Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) are quickly becoming basic necessities for the efficient and effective functioning of society, without which communication is limited and information sharing restricted. Recognizing this, the Estonian government has implemented a national ICT policy that focuses particularly on providing access to and training in the use of ICTs for researchers and students.

In 1993, the Estonian Ministry of Education created the Estonian Educational and Research Network (EENet), a web-based network that provides resources and services for the scientific and educational communities of Estonia, from email services and online repositories of teaching materials to live video feeds of areas of ecological diversity. A decade later, more than 200,000 researchers, students, and teachers and 455 institutions were using the network. Of those users, 85% were schools and universities.

In a related initiative, in February 1993 the Estonian Ministry of Education established the Tiger Leap Program for the purpose of modernizing education, with the slogan one computer for every 20 pupils. All schools had computers by 2000; by the beginning of 2003 98% were connected to the Internet. The original Tiger Leap Program (1997-2000) was highly successful and eventually developed into Tiger Leap Plus (2001-2005) and finally the Learning Tiger (2006-2009) as the program goals shifted from providing computers and Internet access to training educators, developing electronic educational materials, and establishing international cooperation. ICTs have been integrated into school curricula, both as a teaching tool and as a focus of study. Over 100 software packages have been created, providing information about the countrys language, history, culture and environment. The government has sponsored teacher training workshops, overseen the establishment of a system of network and program administrators to guide the programs development, and created the Tiger Tour, which hosts interactive presentations about the Internet all over the country.

Estonia is making strides in ICT availability outside the classroom as well. National law requires that the countrys 4,000 villages be connected to the Public Switched Telephone Network if technically possible. Mobile signals cover 99% of the population, and by early 2005, 81% of Estonian households had a mobile phone. The KulaTee 3 Program, which includes government-supported expansion of broadband coverage to rural areas, ensures that over 90% of the country has Internet access. The government also provides free Internet access at the countrys 700 Public Internet Access Points. In 2007, Estonia entered the ranks of the top 25 countries in the United Nations Digital Opportunity Index. Over 50% of the population uses the Internet, and Estonia has the highest Internet and broadband penetration in Central and Eastern Europe.

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