How can we uphold the right to science?

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As we mark Human Rights Day, Jessica Wyndham calls for all scientists to uphold the right to science.

Today (10 December), the world marks 60 years since the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a global framework for human rights, which includes the right to "share in scientific advancement and its benefits".

But this right — no less vital to the human condition and no less achievable than other human rights — has been neglected. Domestic constitutions make no mention of it (except in Armenia, Moldova and Paraguay), there is no single organisation dedicated to promoting it (except the project I direct at the American Association for the Advancement of Science), and even the UN body responsible for holding governments to account for its protection takes no action.

Power for good

We must resurrect the right to science — not simply as an exercise in fairness (after all, all rights were created equal), but because realising it has the potential to do so much good.

Upholding the right to science means making scientific benefits, such as medicines, communication technologies and renewable energy, accessible to all sectors of society. It also means identifying funding and research priorities that reflect societies’ needs, ensuring quality science education at all levels, removing barriers to scientific freedom, and encouraging international cooperation and the free flow of scientific knowledge.

The right to science is not only a right unto itself, but is also a key prerequisite to achieving other human rights, including the rights to health, water and development.

For example, a Brazilian programme aimed at giving HIV/AIDS patients low-cost generic drugs has improved the right to health in that country. Since the late 1990s, the number of AIDS-related deaths in Brazil has been halved, common infections in HIV/AIDS patients have been reduced by 60–80 per cent, and hospitalisation rates have decreased, as have medical care costs.

Similarly, a Bangladeshi programme to combat arsenic contamination in water, also launched in the late 1990s, has improved living standards. Chemists, hydrologists, and environmental engineers have tested over a million potentially contaminated sites, trained locals to test for arsenic, improved public awareness about the dangers of drinking arsenic-contaminated water and built hundreds of safe water supplies.

And South Korea’s national science and technology programme, which began in 1962, has directly contributed to the country’s rapid development. As the number of well-trained scientists has increased, so has spending on research and development. This in turn has fueled innovation and brought economic success, with an average annual growth rate of almost 10 per cent from 1963–1993.

What must scientists and governments do to make these exemplars of state initiatives become standard practice across the globe?

Make your voice heard

First, the right to science must be placed firmly on the scientific community’s agenda. Scientists need to actively support it, and use their influential voices to demand that governments realise this right.

Scientific associations and academic institutions need to consider the right to science in their work, training, research and teaching, as well as in their advocacy and outreach programmes at home and around the world. They need to reflect on how this right applies to their own discipline, identifying barriers to realising it and developing ways to remove them.

Scientists from all walks of life — universities, professional associations, business and government — should identify what they can do to help governments meet their obligations to realise the right to science. This could include, for example, using the right to science to inform educational curricula and codes of ethics, as well as business plans and foreign aid initiatives.

And governments themselves need to acknowledge their legal responsibility to realise this right. Supported by scientists and civil society, they should start by examining their policies and practices and chart a course for respecting, protecting and fulfilling the right to science.

This could include actions such as redressing the research fundingimbalance for neglected diseases; importing and disseminating simple and inexpensive technology when high-tech innovations are unnecessary; removing barriers to international scientific cooperation; and cultivating a free, diverse and adequately resourced scientific community.

Sixty years ago the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights acknowledged the right to science as a human right equal to all others. As we commemorate this important occasion, scientists should rally together and call on their governments to ensure we all share in scientific progress and enjoy its benefits.

Doing so is our best guarantee that national science policies will help society’s most vulnerable people, foster and sustain scientific capacity and, ultimately, that the next 60 years see the full realisation of all human rights for everyone.

Jessica Wyndham is director of the Article 15 Project of the Science and Human Rights Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.