On the anniversary of philanthropist Alfred Nobel’s death last week, the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), picked up its Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. The organisation was recognised both for its current, hazardous mission to destroy chemical weapons in Syria and also for 16 years of wider efforts to rid the world of such weapons.
By recognising the OPCW’s good work, the Norwegian Nobel Committee reportedly sought to push for more aggressive global efforts to eliminate cheap, easily produced and deadly chemical weapons. 
The world indeed urgently needs to reduce stockpiles of weapons such as the nerve gas sarin, which earlier this year killed more than 1,400 people in Syria.
The prize ceremony and UN Human Rights Day, also celebrated last week, should serve as a call to action for scientists and engineers: supporting human rights increasingly requires the voluntary contributions of talented experts.
That can be a tall order for academic researchers, who have traditionally been rewarded based almost entirely on how many grants they can secure and the number of papers they publish. For scientists at commercial laboratories, finding time to volunteer their services or for public-outreach efforts may pose an even greater challenge.
Clearly, traditional incentive systems need to be expanded to recognise civic service as well as patents and publications. But individual researchers must also expand their career goals to fully embrace the role of citizen-scientist.
Free scientific expertise
The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted on 10 December 1948, noted that everyone has the right “to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” — a concept ratified by 160 nations and supported by organisations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
While the OPCW’s efforts have gained well-deserved publicity, what is less recognised is that many other scientists and engineers also share their skills and expertise, sometimes without compensation, to support human rights.
“Individual researchers must expand their career goals to fully embrace the role of citizen-scientist.”
Mark S. Frankel, Jessica Wyndham, Theresa Harris, AAAS
The AAAS On-call Scientists initiative, established five years ago, is one of many programmes connecting researchers with human rights organisations to do such things as document discrimination and torture, and to study the impacts of child labour and environmental degradation.
Keith B. Ward, for example, now retired from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, is one of more than 800 scientists, engineers and health professionals who are part of the programme. He was asked to help the NGOs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International assess reports of chemical attacks in Syria.
Ward combed through video and photos of an August attack in the Ghouta area, near Damascus, as well as reports from medical staff. Ultimately, he concluded that victims’ clinical symptoms were consistent with exposure to a nerve agent.
Both organisations used the expert information that Ward and other experts contributed as the technical basis for their public statements and reports tying the chemical attack explicitly to human rights concerns.
Another volunteer scientist, Georgene Mortimer, an expert in the investigation and remediation of petroleum-contaminated sites, has helped the legal support organisation Environmental Defender Law Center with two lawsuits in Africa and North America against major oil companies. In the North American case, Mortimer reviewed technical reports to assess claims that a large oil and gas operation had fouled drinking water, threatening human health and crops.
In situations such as these, where the specific human rights concerns being researched include a scientific component, being able to rely on extensive and reliable expertise is crucial.
An array of opportunities
An array of other organisations — including, to name only a few, Statistics Without Borders, Sociologists Without Borders, Engineering for Change and the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition — offer ongoing opportunities for scientists interested in upholding human rights.
After Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, for example, scientists affiliated with Statistics Without Borders helped to identify psychosocial needs, establish communication networks for reporting violence and develop survey methods for determining the prevalence of unemployment and homelessness.  In this way, scientists gave vulnerable people a voice even amid dire living conditions.
Other scientists are helping to deter human rights violations by using ‘eyes in the sky’ — analysing high-resolution satellite images to confirm on-the-ground reports of attacks in any part of the world.
These are just a few examples of how modern science and technology offer new ways to help combat injustices. New technologies are also changing the very meaning of ‘disability’ by creating opportunities for people with disabilities to fully participate in their communities. And advances in neuroscience are helping to better understand the dynamics of oppression and the effects of trauma on populations.
Institutions need to re-examine the old ‘publish-or-perish’ reward system and explore how to more broadly recognise scientists’ contributions to society. By celebrating the OPCW’s work, meanwhile, the hope is that more scientists will seek out such opportunities, including important efforts to identify and prevent human rights violations.
Mark S. Frankel is director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program at AAAS. Jessica Wyndham serves as the program’s associate director. Theresa Harris is a senior program associate at AAAS. firstname.lastname@example.org, @AAAS_SRHRL
References The Japan Times Nobel Peace Prize sends messages (The Japan Times, 29 October 2013)
 Toksoz, C. Researchers Tell AAAS Coalition of Science Impact — and Extensive Human Rights Needs — in Post-Quake Haiti (AAAS, 27 January 2011)