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.