We must clarify the 'human right' to science — and remind governments of their contractual obligation to uphold it.
Tucked away near the bottom of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (signed in December 60 years ago) is a little known clause stating that "everyone has the right freely … to share in scientific advancement and its benefits".
In 1976, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) came into force to put the declaration's aspirations into effect. It similarly recognises everyone's right "to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications".
That 159 countries have signed this covenant deserves to be better known. It is a valuable way of reminding governments that they have already agreed to the principle of making science available to the poor as well as the rich.
But a number of obstacles complicate efforts to implement this commitment. One of the biggest is repeated uncertainty over what the covenant's text means in practical terms — for example in guaranteeing access to scientific knowledge versus protecting intellectual property.
The articles in both the declaration and the covenant that specify the right to enjoy benefits from scientific progress also include a separate clause giving individuals the right to protect the "moral and material interests" their science offers.
This endorsement of intellectual property constrains many attempts to ensure that anyone can enjoy the fruits of science. It gives inventors the right to control access to their results, immediately excluding those who cannot afford to pay their charges.
This issue, for example, is at the heart of campaigns to reduce the costs of essential medicines in developing countries. Campaigners assert that the right to enjoy the results of biomedical science should come before pharmaceutical companies' rights to charge for their discoveries. But the legal basis of this remains hotly disputed, and further clarification is urgently needed on how these clauses, in both the declaration and covenant, should be weighed against each other.
We also need to clarify people's right to science when that science may conflict with either religious beliefs or moral values — whether they be over developing nuclear weapons or researching the potential medical use of embryonic stem cells.
Proponents of stem cell research point to the declaration and covenant to support their cause. They argue that if the science to treat life-threatening diseases exists, sufferers have a human right to access it.
But there is a powerful argument that science can only be beneficial if it is developed within a moral framework. For example, horrific experiments in Nazi concentration camps spurred a complex set of international ethical regulations governing clinical trials in biomedical research.
Most recently, there was an attempt to use human rights to argue the case for action against human-induced climate change (see 'Human rights a 'compass' for climate change policies'). Indeed, where human rights have been invoked about science over the past several decades, the issues have primarily been to protect individuals from potentially unethical applications.
The broader perspective
Individuals' right to enjoy the benefits of science cannot be pursued (or protected) single-mindedly. It must be balanced with other equally important considerations, whether they be protecting intellectual property, human morality or environmental sustainability.
Still, such concerns must not obliterate commitments to making scientific progress available, without which technological innovation, health protection, or even sustainable economic development would be impossible.
Upholding people's right to the benefits of modern science can reinforce demands for governments to create an enabling environment for scientific development. The needs range from improving nations' basic capacity to produce and deliver science, to getting its potential benefits explained and communicated in an accessible way.
Requiring governments to live up to their contractual obligations will not automatically guarantee peoples' 'right to science' any more than international condemnation of torture has made that disappear.
But giving more 'power to the elbows' of those calling on governments to meet their obligations would certainly help.