08.12.2011 - The UNESCO Courier

Breathing life into a neglected human right

Right to Enjoy the Benefits of Scientific Progress and Its Applications


Jessica Wyndham

Associate Program Director, Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

The UNESCO Courier, December 2011

Every December 10 we are reminded of the day, in 1948, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year we mark “Human Rights Day” by focusing on a right that has been largely neglected by the human rights community – the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress. Important unto itself, this right is also vital to the realization of so many other rights, including the rights to health, to food, to water and, in the digital age, to freedom of expression.

The right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress encapsulates concerns that have historically formed part of UNESCO’s core sphere of influence and interest including benefit sharing, the ethical conduct of science and scientific research, and protection of scientific freedom and the research community. As such, UNESCO was the natural home for a program aimed at conceptualizing the right to benefit from scientific progress, identifying barriers to its realization and recommending steps for its application and implementation. To that end, in 2007 UNESCO held the first of three experts’ meetings culminating in the adoption in 2009 of the Venice Statement which constitutes a preliminary statement on the content of the right.

Since 2009 progressive steps have been taken to build on UNESCO’s initial efforts to breathe life into this right. Most significantly, the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science adopted a statement in 2010 recognizing the significance of this right and committing to engage the scientific community in defining and applying the right; the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in October 2011 held a hearing on the meaning and application of the right in the context of the Americas; and also in 2011 the UN Independent Expert in the field of cultural rights undertook to make the right the theme of her next annual report and, thereby, put the right on the agenda of the Human Rights Council as well as other UN bodies.

Before laying out a general framework for the meaning and application of the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress it is important to identify the various components of the right as set out in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 15 not only refers to the obligation of governments to respect the right of everyone to “the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its application” but also requires governments to take the steps necessary for the “conservation, development and diffusion” of science, to “respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research” and to encourage the development of “international contacts and cooperation” in the field of science.

With the breadth of the right in mind, below is an outline of the fundamental characteristics of the right as presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights earlier this year.

Focus on the rights of marginalized and vulnerable populations: The right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of scientific and technological progress is an individual and a collective right. The realization of this right requires states to give particular focus to the needs of marginalized and vulnerable populations, including with regard to access to basic scientific and technological advances; research funding targeted to the specific needs of marginalized and impoverished communities; and protection of the rights of human research subjects.

Participation in decision-making: Dissemination of scientific information is essential to facilitating public participation in decision-making about science and to fostering further research and development. Underpinning both goals is the obligation on states to institute effective science curricula at all levels of the education system; to publicly disseminate scientific information; and to develop mechanisms for engaging the public in decision-making about funding and research priorities, as well as science policy, including as it relates to emerging areas of research and new technological applications.

International cooperation: Strengthening international cooperation and assistance in science and technology is vital to the realization of the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific and technological progress. International cooperation may take the form of direct aid, financial and/or material, as well as the development of international collaborative models of research, development and capacity-building, with a focus on mechanisms aimed to benefit developing countries and their populations.

Protection from science and technology that violate human rights: The right to ensure the benefits of scientific and technological progress includes a corresponding obligation to ensure against the use and/or misuse of science and technology in violation of human rights, including in the process of doing research, the products of scientific research, and the application of scientific and technological advances.

Scientific freedom: Scientific freedom is vital to the development of a robust and productive scientific community, requiring freedom of thought, to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds; the right of scientists to form and join professional societies and associations; and the freedom of the scientific community and its individual members to collaborate with others both within their own country and internationally, including the freedom to leave and re-enter their own country and the free exchange of information, research ideas and results.

In the process of defining the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress there are several issues that require particular consideration and discussion.

Scientific responsibility: Scientific freedom is not absolute. Scientists are expected to conduct their research responsibly in accordance with ethical standards, standards which in practice are often developed and maintained by discipline-specific professional organizations and supported by legal and institutional mechanisms. These ethical standards and legal frameworks are rarely based explicitly on human rights standards. For the purposes of conceptualizing the right to benefit from scientific progress it is vital to determine the meaning of scientific responsibility from a human rights perspective.

Right to benefit from science and intellectual property: Clarification of the relationship between intellectual property protections and human rights is evolving. However, further consideration is still required to develop creative and effective mechanisms for protecting both the moral and material interests of creators as well as the human rights of individuals and communities. Conceptualization of the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific and technological progress presents a vital opportunity to contribute further to these considerations.

Right to benefit from science and national security: Export control regulations, travel restrictions, limitations on foreign contacts and information sharing, trade embargoes and sanctions, and similar barriers to international cooperation and research limit the freedom of scientists to conduct their work, and particularly to collaborate internationally and with international partners. The legitimate imposition and scope of such restrictions requires examination.

Third party actors and obligations: Determining practical measures for applying the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific and technological progress, and determining how to do so in a way consistent with the general principles of human rights, poses unique challenges given the significant and increasing role of the private sector in research and development. In countries where the government’s role in identifying priority research areas, undertaking research, and disseminating the products of research has been reduced, the private sector’s influence has increased.

In conclusion, the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress is a fundamental right, core to the realization of many other rights and important unto itself. Although first recognized in 1948, the right remains largely unknown, its relation to other rights undetermined, its content undefined and, therefore, its application and implementation insufficient. Steps are now being taken to breathe life into this neglected right and all relevant stakeholders, from scientists and human rights practitioners, to civil society and governments need to be mobilized to contribute to this process.

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