Scientists Come Out for Human Rights

Scientists Come Out for Human Rights

After eight years of being sidelined by the Bush administration, many in notoriously apolitical professions are ready to stand up and be counted on the social and ethical implications of their work.


Ever hear of a pro bono chemist, or a human rights physicist or an environmental statistician?

Not really, right? True, every now and again, a social crisis has motivated some sector of the scientific community to throw their hats into the political ring: the nuclear threats of the cold war begat the Union of Concerned Scientists, the healthcare crisis Physicians for a National Health Program, the advent of unregulated biotech the Council for Responsible Genetics. But the scientific masses have by and large remained impassively unmoved, churning out their papers, applying for their grants and debating esoterica at their private professional meetings, with nary a head turned for the din and crash of messy social realities outside their rarefied digs.

But cracks in that notoriously apolitical stance have started to appear. Take, for example, a groundbreaking meeting held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in mid-January. At the AAAS’s elegant DC headquarters, some 200 scientists met with a smattering of human rights activists, sharing stories of a groundswell of interest in social change activism in the scientific community. “People in my organization are very eager to volunteer their services” to human rights organizations, said biostatistician Hormuzd Katki of the Washington Statistical Society. Who knew? “Human rights activists and scientists are both in pursuit of the truth, it’s a natural partnership,” enthused EarthRights International activist Matthew Smith, who attended the meeting.

The result: the AAAS’s new Science and Human Rights Coalition, which aims to enlist dozens of mainstream scientific associations (seventy-five sent representatives to the meeting) in the business of pushing scientists to learn about and speak out on human rights violations and to offer their expertise in support of established human rights organizations. “We’re going to beat all those pro bono lawyers,” announced sociologist and coalition co-founder Mona Younis.

Of course, it will take more than charitable intentions–and inter-professional rivalry–to reorient scientific inquiry to serve rather than undermine human rights. After all, the sciences’ professional culture frowns upon those who speak out, holding that a disinterested, unbiased scientific method requires a concomitantly disinterested and unbiased mind. “Scientists can’t be seen as advocates,” one scientist at the AAAS meeting said, to a sea of nodding heads. Plus, no scientist gets canned for the transgressive social implications of their discoveries. Some get prizes for those very same discoveries, in fact.

Not to mention that the governments and corporations that commit human rights violations pick up a large chunk of the tab for scientific research. Weapons manufacturers, chemical companies, mining concerns, drugmakers: these entities pay big dollars to today’s physicists, chemists, geologists and pharmacologists. They decide which scientific questions are asked and which are not. That’s why scientists know a lot about how to make new pesticides and find new oil and gas deposits, for example, but relatively little about the impact of these on human health and the environment, the very questions to which human rights activists need answers.

Nevertheless, besides motivating an untapped base of already willing human rights-leaning scientists, the AAAS’s new coalition could send a potent wake-up call to the profession. The AAAS boasts a 10 million-strong membership and the flagship journal Science, one of the most prestigious and widely cited journals for scientists in all disciplines. Their imprimatur on the human rights struggle has the potential to be as powerful as a Nobel Prize in changing the scientific mindset.

New and mid-career scientists, those most vulnerable to the apolitical professional culture and the pressures of sponsors, may well feel empowered to start speaking out. (President Obama, in his inaugural address, did promise to “restore science to its rightful place.”) If so, the public debate–with its fuzzy math, shady statistics and thermodynamically challenged energy talk–will only be improved for it.

The coalition also plans to offer hands-on support to human rights groups. Many of the most effective human rights organizations, of course, already employ scientists and the scientific method in their work, describing the chemistry of pesticide pollution, the epidemiology of torture, the statistics of war crimes. But few small, grassroots organizations have the wherewithal to find–let alone employ–our most pointy-headed experts. Younis foresees the coalition helping link NGOs with volunteer scientists expert in everything from reviewing scientific reports and devising scientific surveys to high-tech mapping and medical examinations.

And so, coming after eight years of the Bush administration sidelining and perverting scientific findings, the coalition’s debut is a welcome sign of a possibly emerging socially responsible science. Don’t expect much by way of star-studded flash or Bill Gates-like speed, though. Because it’s comprised of scientists, the coalition will proceed methodically, cautiously, with a great deal of peer-to-peer negotiation and discussion. There will be lectures, and papers and meetings. And overhead slides with lots of graphs and charts. “I’m going to violate your human rights,” Younis warned the assembled crowd in Washington, as she began her talk describing the Coalition’s mission, “to be free of PowerPoint presentations.”

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