Ideas on the “Right to Science”, 1: An Introduction

Posted on Friday, September 21, 2018

Author: Dr. Tee Guidotti

Inaugural Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Science and Society, Winter/Spring 2015, ISSP, University of Ottawa.
Current President of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society.

On 9 October 2018, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, of the Office of the United Nations (UN) Commissioner on Human Rights will hold a general discussion on article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Geneva. This blog is adapted from a submission to this meeting.

The “right to science” is a natural right that also has utility in justice, development, and advancing the scientific enterprise

Scientific freedom and human rights are natural rights recognized under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948; Article 27).

The relationship between scientific freedom and human rights is as deep on the side of science as it is on the side of human rights. Issues of who benefits, who is allowed to contribute to science, who has a say in how science is governed, and how science is admitted into society and culture have come to maturity more recently. Taken together, these issues are called “the right to science” and form a new framework for considering a full range of issues in science and technology.

“The right to science” informs analysis of ethics, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) capacity building (in a global economy that punishes countries that are not engaged in science), support for research, freedom to pursue scientific questions where there is an interest and resources to do so, freedom to pursue science for applications that will benefit a particular community or country, and freedom to use the knowledge and methods of science and technology for personal benefit and gain. With the implications of a right to science come countervailing scientific responsibilities, and with them questions of governance of scientific conduct and institutions and science and technology for social benefit.  The right to science also promotes diversity in the scientific enterprises, which facilitates insights and conceptualization of problems, applications and proposed solutions to problems, capacity building and recruitment of talent, lower barriers to dissemination and diffusion of scientific knowledge, and more thorough comprehension of science as accumulated knowledge is integrated into national educational system and local culture.

The concept of a “right to science” provides a framework for the elaboration of ethical principles in science and for science policy. Actual change can only be effectively achieved within a country’s own political and economic system. However the legal standing of an internationally-recognized right to science has persuasive force.

There are three constituent “rights to science”: a fourth should be recognized

The right to science does not stand alone. It is reciprocal with other rights, such as the right to take part in cultural life, freedom of expression, and of movement. There are three constituent “rights to science” enumerated within the general “right to science”: 1) the right to participate in science, 2) the right to benefit from science, 3) the right to benefit from a person’s own contribution or invention. Later in this paper it will be argued that there is a fourth constituent right, which is the right to access to scientific information to build “critical science” using scientific knowledge to address and resolve societal and ecological problems arising from the application of science and technology.

Under these three overriding rights are a series of subsidiary rights (subsidiary as they apply to science – some of them are inalienable human rights in other contexts), including freedom of access to information, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, as well as enabling rights such as the right to participate in decisions about science and rights to information and the right to an environment that “fosters the conservation, development, and diffusion of knowledge” (from an interpretive document prepared for the UN Human Rights Council).

The notion of a right to contribute to science has economic development, individual, and cultural implications. Science is the central way of knowing of the material culture and if the society cannot participate wholly in science is less able to understand and engage with the influence of technology in life, interact with societies in which science plays a dominant role, respond to changes that occur with economic and technological change, and incorporate the ideas of science into its own way of thinking. If a society is not participating in scientific research, then its citizens are not in the network of information sharing, cannot learn by experience, and cannot master the techniques of practice. The result is that the country cannot build capacity and becomes a client of STEM-knowledge generating societies. The individual is denied a role in modern society. Thus the right to contribute is substantial and has to do with maintaining and enriching as well as challenging cultural identity.

The rights (plural here, for society and individual) to benefit from science are more obvious. Scientific knowledge is universal and research is a global enterprise. It should be shared and all should benefit. While not everybody has the capacity or education to know, access to education is its own right and the right to know accurately about the material world and the views that science provides is essential to making that right meaningful and connecting it to culture and the right to participate in one’s culture. The tangible benefits of science, such as improved quality of life, improved health, prospects for a continually improving future for coming generations, policy and governance based on fact rather than supposition, economic development, and the invention of particular products and methods are by right available to society and should be accessible to the individual to the maximum extent that resources and social distribution allow. If that were not the case, it would imply legitimacy to exclusion of societies and discrimination against individuals in access to economic development and material improvement. Framed as a right, however, it implies that societies cannot be excluded from access to science as an enterprise. There are obviously limitations that can legitimately be imposed on this (for example, on nuclear proliferation) but the benign use of science (for example, access to the principles of physics) is or should be open to all who have the capacity to engage with it.

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