Ideas on the “Right to Science” 2: Proposals

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.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, of the Office of the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights will hold a general discussion on article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in Geneva on 9 October 2018. This blog continues the discussion on the “right to science” begun in the first blog installment on this topic.

Two entirely new proposals are outlined in this submission:

1) Recognition of an inherent “fourth” constituent right to science, which is the right to use scientific knowledge to critically evaluate the effects of technology, policies, and the application of scientific knowledge on individuals, communities, populations, and ecosystems.

2) The application of concepts of “public” and “private” knowledge and application of this construct to seek a balance in protecting interests of indigenous and minority peoples.

Balancing the right to science, the right to benefit, and the right to privacy of indigenous and minority peoples

There is tension between the free sharing of scientific knowledge and how to achieve this (for example, by Open Access or free use) and how to protect the right of individuals to benefit from their own discoveries or inventions. A skeptical view has it that a universal right of access to scientific information is not a legitimate right but a privilege or a permission to appropriate the benefit of someone else’s intellectual labor; however, this is not logical in the framework because any author’s intellectual labor is grounded on what has gone before and on their education (which is an enumerated right) and the fundamental issue in question is not who controls access to knowledge (a governance question) but providing benefit (not necessarily evaluated compensation or remuneration but benefit) to the individual who created it. Settling this issue of control and compensation and achieving a balance between social benefit and protecting intellectual property is a matter of national law and custom. It is usually dealt with by granting a patent or copyright for a limited duration. As a broad principle, individual property rights are temporary and transferable (intellectual property can be sold or assigned) whereas human rights are inalienable and take priority. For example, the need to access inexpensive retroviral drugs during the emerging global HIV/AIDS pandemic over-rode drug patents and restrictions, but was accommodated through negotiation. However there are other situations where access bodies of knowledge are generally protected, for example indigenous traditional knowledge. There is an inherent conflict between this privilege for the minority and an assumed right of access to beneficial knowledge and right to benefit for everyone else.

Balancing free sharing of scientific knowledge with rights of access and cultural protection for indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities presents a possible conflict with rights of benefit. One way of looking at this problem is through the philosophical lens of “private and public knowledge.” Private knowledge (what people believe and know about themselves and within, say, the family) is generally protected under law and custom as confidential. This opens a pathway to treating traditional knowledge as a form of “collective private knowledge” afforded the usual protections of privacy and confidentiality extended to families.

Proposal: A fourth constituent right - “critical science” and the right to science

This correspondent recommends adding another item to the existing enumeration of rights (as above): the use the methods of science to evaluate and correct harms that may arise from the application of science and technology. (This item refers to the concept of “critical science” as developed by Jerome Ravetz and represents my own view; in practice the right to apply critical science has been subsumed under the right to benefit.) The “benefits” of science are not limited to creating new value and achieving equity in distribution. They also accrue from preventing and solving problems and monitoring science and technology when there is a potential for doing harm. This is only possible using the means of science itself, and the doctrine of “critical science” helps to make science and technology self-correcting in the same way that replication makes science self-correcting. Without scientists studying the effect of science and technology, the rest of the society is denied the benefit of early warning, documentation of emerging problems, and effective solutions. The environmental health sciences are the premiere examples of this.

Proposal: A right to science and collective private knowledge

Balancing free sharing of scientific knowledge with rights of access and cultural protection for indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. One way forward is to consider the issue or traditional knowledge through the framework of “public” and “private knowledge.” Science represents a form of “public knowledge” accessible to all, while traditional knowledge is a form of collective “private knowledge”, shared within a defined group but that does not have the status of public knowledge for the society as a whole and therefore need not be shared with all. In that case, control of access is a broader, cultural issue and governance is usually by traditional means. For example, tribal custom may dictate what information can be shared with outsiders and even within the tribe about such matters as cosmology, genealogy, the location of productive hunting or fishing grounds, medicinal plants, and so forth.

This correspondent proposes the existence of a form of “collective private” knowledge, in which a group maintains a system of knowledge that within the group is treated as public knowledge but is considered to be a collective form of “private knowledge” outside the group. This provides grounds for treating traditional knowledge as a form of “collective private knowledge” and afford this type of knowledge the usual protection under law and custom of privacy and confidentiality that is normally extended to families.

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