AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition Examines the “Right to Science”

August 2017

The Science and Human Rights Coalition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its summer meeting in July in Washington, D.C. The agenda focused on the Right to Science—the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications as spelled out in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). AERA is a founding member of the coalition, which formed in 2009.

In the opening session, Jessica Wyndham, interim director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program  and coordinator of the Science and Human Rights Coalition, and Margaret Weigers Vitullo, director of academic and professional affairs at the American Sociological Association, discussed findings from “Giving Meaning to the Right to Science: A Global and Multidisciplinary Approach,” a new report from AAAS and members of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition.

The session focused on the global context for the discussion of the right to science, scientists’ perspectives on the right to science, lessons learned about applications of the right to science in practice, and next steps in the coalition’s work on the right.

In the second plenary, Mikel Mancisidor of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Stephen Marks from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health provided additional insights on the international discourse on this issue.

This session also introduced the set of challenging conceptual questions that, according to the United Nations, must be answered in order to develop guidance for full implementation of the right to science.

These include:

  • How can the right be used to assess and address potentially harmful impacts of scientific and technological developments?
  • How should the right inform articulation of legitimate limitations on scientific research and its applications?

In an afternoon session, participants divided into small groups to delve more deeply into the full range of conceptual questions.  These two sessions together prompted discussions that aimed to inform a better definition of the right to science and to foster a better understanding of what the right will mean in practice.

The third plenary, “Realizing the Right to Science in Policy and Practice,” featured examples of how scientists are using the right to science to frame their research and explored how greater awareness and application of the right to science can affect policies.  

In the closing session, Wyndham underscored the fact that there has been considerable progress “in developing a firm conceptual understanding of the meaning of the right [to science]… and its applications in practice.” 

The Science and Human Rights Coalition Council will use insights generated from this meeting to further inform the ongoing work that the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights is doing to develop an authoritative statement on the meaning of the right to science.