Scientific Freedom and Human Rights: A Common Framework

Posted on Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Author: Tee Guidotti

Former Fulbright Visiting Research Chair, ISSP
Immediate Past President of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society

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 only in the past decade. 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 policy.

Scientific freedom and human rights are natural rights that are codified in a legal framework grounded in the United Nations International Bill of Rights. 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. 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”.

The third document in the International Bill of Rights is the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966); it covers self-determination, rights to social security, family rights (such as protection of children and parents), rights to a decent standard of living, labor rights, a right to free education, a right to health, and a right to participate in the culture and society (and not be excluded). Protection of the welfare of scientists, as with other scholars and indeed all people, flow largely from this third document but are also informed by the right to science.

The notion of a right to contribute to science has economic development, individual, and cultural implications. 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. If its STEM-talented citizens are individually denied participation or groups or individuals are excluded, then local issues may not be adequately addressed and individual opportunity is restricted. The society loses the benefit of talent and the individual is denied a role in society. In the modern world, 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. Thus the right to contribute is substantial and has to do with maintaining and enriching as well as challenging cultural identity.

The rights (plural, 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.

At the same time, there is tension between the free sharing of scientific knowledge and ways 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. However, 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 protected, for example indigenous traditional knowledge.

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. With the implications of a right to science come countervailing scientific responsibilities, and with them questions of governance and social democracy. 

The right to science, as a framework, is emerging as a tool for both analysis (for example, to evaluate policies, education, and laws, among other applications) and synthesis (constructing new and more robust approaches to diversity, science diplomacy, sustainable development, and global trade, among other obvious applications). It is valid in itself but also represents a strategy that can be used to reconcile issues of ethics and science policy and to advocate for a fair resolution of issues of exclusion or neglect.


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