AAAS Marries Science and Human Rights

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PTSM: Pharmaceutical Technology Sourcing and Management

PTSM: Pharmaceutical Technology Sourcing and Management-06-09-2010, Volume 6, Issue 6

The American Association for the Advancement of Science rolls out several initiatives to increase partnerships and communication on human rights between scientific groups and between scientific and human rights groups.

Bridging functional areas and skill sets to achieve a goal is crucial in business and scientific endeavors and is an equally important task when trying to realize larger societal goals. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), through its Science and Human Rights Program, is seeking to do just that by engaging scientific and human rights groups to realize human rights generally, and the human right to scientific progress specifically. The association has launched several initiatives to facilitate ways in which the scientific community can become more involved with human rights and how science can be used as a tool in realizing human rights.

Intensifying efforts

The AAAS is a multidisciplinary scientific organization with direct membership of 130,000 individuals and affiliation of 262 scientific associations, which together serve more than 10 million scientists. The AAAS has had a Science and Human Rights Program since 1977. It has worked to bring scientific tools and techniques to promote and protect human rights in areas such as forensic science in the exhumation of mass graves and statistics to illuminate large-scale human rights violations. But the association is working to broaden the scope of its efforts. “Part of the mission of the program is to engage individual scientists and scientific associations in human rights efforts,” explains Jessica Wyndham, project director of the Science and Human Rights Program at AAAS. “This involves applying scientific tools and technologies to enhance human rights work, bringing human rights standards to the conduct of science, and promoting the human right to the benefit of science.”

To realize those objectives, in 2005, the Science and Human Rights Program held a conference attended by scientific, academic, and human rights organizations, to explore ways in which the scientific community could become more directly engaged in human rights. Forty-two representatives of many of the largest scientific organizations in the United States, including the American Chemical Society, the American Statistical Association, and the American Public Health Association, took part in the conference. At the conference, the participants agreed to form a Science and Human Rights Coalition as part of the Science and Human Rights Program of the AAAS. After a two-year planning effort involving 20 scientific organizations, which began in 2007, the coalition was launched in January 2009. The coalition now includes 46 member and associated organizations and 51 individual scientists. It is organized into five working groups: welfare of scientists; science ethics and human rights; service to the scientific community; service to the human rights community; and education and information resources.

The human right to scientific progress

A major underpinning of the work of the Science and Human Rights Coalition and the Science and Human Rights Program is to realize the human right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, a right that is articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR was adopted by members of the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and was the first comprehensive international instrument on human rights. “The links between science and human rights as expressed in the UDHR are multiple,” explains Wyndham. She outlines several interrelationships:

  • Several human rights require access to the benefits of science and technology in order to be realized, including the rights to information and freedom of expression, the rights to health and education, and the right to an adequate standard of living

  • As shown by the Science and Human Rights Program, scientific tools, techniques, and methodologies are often valuable, if not vital, in identifying and showing the existence and extent of human rights violations, measuring progress toward the realization of human rights, and in bringing governments to account for their voluntarily assumed legal human rights obligations

  • Human rights standards are relevant to the conduct of scientific research

  • Although not well known to many in the scientific and human rights communities, the right to benefit from science is explicitly recognized in Article 27 of the UDHR, which, states that “[e]veryone has the right to … share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

The UDHR is not legally binding, but served as a basis for the development of two subsequent treaties in 1966, one of which was the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which has been adopted by 160 countries. Article 15 of that treaty obligates signatory governments to observe four key aspects relating to human rights and science. These include: recognizing the right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications; conserving, developing, and diffusing science; respecting the freedom indispensable to scientific research; and recognizing the benefits of international contacts and cooperation in the scientific field.

“Unlike the rights to freedom of expression or freedom from torture, for example, this human right provision is little known, and its significance and practical implications are yet to be explored,” says Wyndham. In recognition of the relevance of the human right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress, in 2007, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program adopted Article 15 as the focus of one of its four programs areas and started working to engage scientific groups in clarifying the meaning of the right and promoting its implementation. “Program staff have conducted multiple trainings for AAAS staff and members of AAAS, its affiliates, and individual scientists,” she says. “We have developed a clearinghouse on information about the right, including literature, government reports on the implementation of the right, and exemplars of government actions that contribute to the realization of the right.”

Coincident to, but separate from the efforts of the AAAS, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a specialized UN agency, initiated a process to elucidate the meaning of the human right to enjoy the benefits of science. “I was the only participant of a scientific organization invited to participate in the process,” says Wyndham, which reflected both the need and opportunity for mutual engagement by the human rights and scientific communities. The UNESCO process culminated in the adoption of the Venice Statement in July 2009, which outlines minimum core elements of the right and conceptual and practical challenges. These challenges, explains Wyndham, include the potential tension between an intellectual property estate and the right to access scientific benefits, particularly by marginalized and vulnerable communities. The Venice Statement also identifies the next steps toward giving the meaning to the right, including the need to raise awareness within the scientific community and the value of engaging scientists in clarifying the meaning and practical applications of the right.

Building on the process started by UNESCO and the recommendations of the Venice Statement, in April 2010, the board of directors of AAAS adopted a statement on the human right to the benefits of scientific progress. “The purpose of the statement is to encourage greater and more effective engagement of the scientific community in the process of clarifying the meaning of this right and to outline the role to be played by AAAS in encouraging and facilitating such involvement,” explains Wyndham. “A principal way in which AAAS will take a leadership role in engaging the scientific community on this issue is through the Science and Human Rights Coalition.”

The Science and Human Rights Coalition

The Science and Human Rights Coalition is one of four ongoing initiatives of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program. The other three are: On-call Scientists, which connects scientists interested in volunteering their expertise to human rights organizations; the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, which uses satellite imagery and related technologies to document human rights violations that involve physical destruction (e.g., dwellings, villages, infrastructure) or the displacement of people; and the Article 15 Project, which aims to place the realization of the “right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress” on the agenda of the scientific community and to assist governments to realize the right in practice.

Wyndham details the progress made by the working groups in the Science and Human Rights Coalition. The coalition developed a starter kit that scientific associations can use to evaluate how they can address human rights through their organizations. The coalition is starting to build the informational infrastructure required to work across disciplines, to incorporate human rights in science curricula, and to encourage collaborative partnerships between scientists and human rights organizations. Another key goal is to increase representation from the life, physical, and engineering sciences, which are currently underrepresented in the coalition, explains Wyndham.

She also points to the interrelationship between the pharmaceutical industry and human rights. “The work of the pharmaceutical industry can have a significant impact on human rights,” she says. “From determining the target of research, the process by which a product is developed, and who has access to the product, human rights principles apply.” She points to several positive developments within the pharmaceutical industry that espouse the tenets of human rights and opportunities for their further realization such as programs that address the problem of neglected diseases, standards for the conduct of clinical-trials, and global health initiatives to increase access to medicines, particularly among marginalized and impoverished people. “In the context of our work on the right to the benefits of scientific progress, we expect to address these issues and welcome constructive and innovative ideas.”

To that end, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition will meet July 26–27, 2010 in Washington DC. As part of that meeting, the Coalition Council will consider the adoption of a plan of action that sets out the coalition’s activities for engaging the scientific community in defining and promoting the right to the benefits of scientific progress. “In addition, we are developing a strategy to build bridges with the human rights community to identify ways in which scientists can contribute their work,” explains Wyndham. “And we are starting to tackle conceptually challenging questions, including the relationship between human rights and ethical standards.”

Information about the Science and Human Rights Program at the AAAS can be found here.