By: Jan Piotrowski


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Making access to science a human right is a worthy goal, but how can it be enshrined? And will it really deliver? Jan Piotrowski investigates.

[PARIS] Access to science, as well as an equitable share of its benefits, is a universal human right, as inalienable as the right to water, justice or even life.

At least this is the status given to science by the UN's 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which lays out the rights that all humans should enjoy. Legally protecting access to science is a powerful idea, particularly when applied to development, where so many areas — including agriculture, healthcare, and information and communication technologies (ICTs) — rely heavily on uptake of scientific advances.  

Science can also be used to protect other basic human rights, and has been used to monitor and attempt to prevent human right abuses in conflict.

But how is this right being implemented around the world, and who is pushing the rights-based agenda for access to science? And why are national policymakers failing to use a rights-based agenda to get science to their people?

An international effort

The foundation provided by the ICESCR could help to form development policies, based on human rights, that combat many threats to science access. For example, journal costs and patenting can put a price on information that poorer societies often cannot afford.

But despite the potential of a human rights approach, what it would consist of remains vague, and many governments remain unconvinced of exactly how using a human rights angle can improve access to science — or even that it is politically feasible to implement.

To address these concerns and develop concrete principles to guide policy, governments and scientific organisations have been exploring what the right to science means in practice. The UN and its agencies, in particular UNESCO [the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization], are heavily involved in this area — attempting to develop a legal framework that the international community can accept.

"Science, so long as it is appropriately structured by an ethical framework, can make an indespenisble positive contribution to human needs, interests and value," says John Crowley from the UNESCO Division of Ethics and Global Change. "Viewing science access through human rights gives us exactly that framework."

Through two advisory bodies, composed of independent experts working in parallel, UNESCO is exploring how the right to science should fit into national and international policies.

Two boys helping to transport water

Is bringing pricy nanotech to villages a positive step when traditional water filtration may have more impact?

Flickr/Oxfam International

These bodies — the International Bioethics Commission (IBC) and the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) — advise member states' governments through UNESCO's Executive Board and General Assembly, as well as various intergovernmental organisations that use UNESCO as a discussion forum.

The IBC concerns itself with issues arising in healthcare, such as access to drugs, and is broadening its scope to look at the potential for marginalisation and discrimination that could arise through applications of emerging biomedical technologies. COMEST covers issues raised by ICTs, nanotechnology and the ethical concerns of environmental problems such as climate change.

Putting it into practice

A human rights approach to science access is already being used in some projects.

Climate change relies heavily on science for both characterisation and solutions, but is so complicated that just a handful of research centres have the capacity to properly investigate it, says Crowley, who is also secretary of COMEST.

As many developing regions, such as West Africa, have inadequate resources, they are essentially denied the right to both access and generate scientific information, he says.

Looking into the issue, COMEST determined that as access to scientific information was a human right, developed nations were ethically bound to improve availability of these data, and to increase the capacity of poorer nations affected by climate change to conduct their own research.

Following a 2010 COMEST report, 'The Ethical Implications of Climate Change', which formalised the ethical duty to aid developing nations in dealing with climate change, UNESCO has spearheaded a series of initiatives to strengthen regional cooperation in West Africa. One of these, the Adaptation to Climate Change in Coastal Zones of West Africa (ACCC) project, brings together delegates from Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal to discuss solutions to climate change problems such as rising sea levels and coastal erosion.

UNESCO is also feeding into a process, led by the World Meteorological Organisation, to connect users in developing countries to climate change services derived from long-term weather and climate information.

In separate efforts, the IBC has responded to calls made for international standards in bioethics by playing a central role in developing the 2005 Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights.

The declaration embodies the spirit of the ICESCR covenant by demanding universal access to healthcare advances, diagnostic and therapeutic technology, and scientific information, and provides a powerful imperative to encourage governments to consider the human right to science.

Solar panels being installed

Human rights have the symbolic value that could help rally action on access to science and technology

Flickr/Solar Electric Light Fund

UNESCO has since worked to increase the influence of this idea by training national bioethics committees and regional networks in many developing countries, which use the 2005 declaration for guidance.

The right type of science

But just as the access to science has a huge potential for improving lives, it can also do harm if not responsibly managed.

People must be protected from the "dark side" of new developments, says IBC's chair, Stefano Semplici. Crowley is also keen to point out the aim is not simply to improve access to science, but improve access to the right type of science.

For example, he asks, is bringing expensive nanotechnology water filtration to a rural village in Africa a positive step, when traditional technology might have a greater impact?

Bringing a human rights perspective can act as a huge motivator for people to fight for their right to science, Bhanu Neupane, a programme specialist in UNESCO's Knowledge Services Division (KSD), tells SciDev.Net.

While working to improve people's access to science, he has seen how a sense of entitlement can be created just by labelling science a human right: "People now take action to fight for their right".

Implementation hurdles

Neupane acknowledges that human rights considerations are now central to UN activities, but he believes COMEST and the IBC must make the idea of science access more visible and impactful.

"They [COMEST and IBC] have restricted themselves to working at a very high level serving as an intellectual and policy forum. This work now needs to trickle down to the level of implementation," he says.

Stephen Rudgard, from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Office of Knowledge Exchange, Research and Extension, who has been working with UNESCO, agrees there is a lack of a political framework to put the idea into action.

He's not alone.

This sentiment was echoed at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Coalition (16-17 July), where an undercurrent of discontent stemmed from a perceived lack of government leadership in the area, says Jessica Wyndham, associate director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.

"We haven't seen a strong global framework for ensuring governments are meeting their obligations with regards to this right [to science access]," she says.

Wyndham, however is upbeat about the future, pointing to the huge impact that associations such as the AAAS, which have a broad influence and reach in the scientific community, can achieve even without concrete policy.

The AAAS programme aims to shape the conversation with the very scientists and development practitioners who are implementing projects, and it has already begun to do so, with a series of focus groups completed and plans for a global survey.

Does it need to be a right?

Not everyone at the AAAS meeting, however, was impressed by the practical value of a human rights approach.

Speaking after the conference, Bob Freling, executive director of the Solar Electric Light Fund, tells SciDev.Net that rights have a symbolic value that could help to rally governments to tackle key issues regarding science access and development.

But, when it comes to providing development solutions, governments and aid agencies are much more influenced by practical examples of the impact of science access, he says.

This view is common among development practitioners on the ground, Wyndham concedes. The 'right to science' conversation is still young and has yet to significantly filter down to smaller organisations focused on practical solutions, she says.

Crowley, however, thinks that the rights-based approach is a strong basis for practical action, suggesting that it's possible to move forward with the principles that already exist.

Yet, if the approach is to develop at a political level, UNESCO will play a central role, says Crowley. Although science organisations such as AAAS are doing an admirable job, they lack the clout to significantly impact policy outside of their membership, he says.

"Achieving political consensus is very hard, but once its achieved it gets a lot of leverage," he says.

"If we don't do it, no one else will."

This article is part of a Spotlight on Linking human rights, science and development.