The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting: a brief report

Juan C. Gallardo and Michele Irwin

This biannual AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting was held at the headquarters of AAAS, Washington DC on July 11-12, 2013. A news release and the meeting agenda (with links to some of the presentations) are available on the Coalition website.

The theme of the Coalition meeting was Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which states, in part, that everyone has the right “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.” The ICESCR was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1966, but until recently, this right has received little attention. As a result, there has been no clear definition of this right. Thus, in 2007, the United Nations undertook a process to elucidate it. In order to bring attention to this undertaking and ensure that the views of scientists are included in the process, the Coalition has focused much of its work around Article 15. This meeting highlighted the many diverse facets of the right. We summarize here one of the four panels in the agenda.

The panel “International Scientific Cooperation and Article 15” explored the relationship among human rights, national security and scientific freedom. Speakers focused on access to the right to science though the lens of international scientific cooperation. One of the panelists, Frank William La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, stressed the need of unencumbered scientific freedom of expression and reminded us that, nowadays, free exchange of information depends increasingly on the Internet, both from the standpoint of access to connectivity as well as content. This point was highlighted in an example he provided: While India has essentially unrestricted Internet content, in 2011, only 7% of its citizens had Internet connectivity. This impedes the majority of people in the country from accessing information. China had the opposite problem, i.e., a high level of connectivity among its citizens, but restricted access to content and by extension, information generally. These scenarios are especially serious when one considers the possible implications on the ability to access scientific knowledge and information.

Throughout his presentation, La Rue stressed that there is a link among all human rights; they are a network and cannot be separated from each other. The ability to access the Internet facilitates one’s capability of accessing information and knowledge, which then influences how people can express themselves, enabling freedom of expression, for example.

La Rue’s remarks echoed comments by Michael Posner, US Assistant Secretary of State during an event at AAAS on October 2012. Posner said “... academic freedom.... depends on an Internet that is maintained as an open platform for the free exchange of information and ideas - or Internet Freedom”; “...and this must be across campuses and borders.” He added “the freedom to debate and participate in scientific research is essential to scientists.” Scientific freedom will not exist without Internet freedom. This is further emphasized by the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Internet Freedom that asserts that freedom of expression online is a basic human right.

The next speaker was E. William Colglazier, the Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State, as well as a physicist and past chair of the APS Forum on Physics and Society. He enunciated the important role that science and scientific research can play in advancing diplomacy and economic progress. In 1966, the ICESCR that includes Article 15 was ratified by 160 governments. The US has signed the Covenant but has not ratified it. Colglazier said that the US, “as a policy matter” does uphold the “values and principles of Article 15 – envisioning a world that promotes the ability of everyone to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” He noted that his office is working to ease regulatory barriers, such as cumbersome visa application procedures for foreign scientists and students, which inhibit international research collaborations.

He also expressed the active involvement of his office in a number of US-sponsored programs to promote international scientific and economic cooperation. A couple of examples of those efforts are in the State Department’s STAS Initiatives: The NeXXt Scholars Program offers women students from Muslim-majority countries and the US who are interested in studying STEM disciplines the opportunity to pursue undergraduate programs at US women's colleges. LAUNCH identifies innovations that have the potential to have significant impact on vital sustainability issues. The program then connects the innovators with investors, mentors and other stakeholders to provide leverage to implement their projects into the global market.

Colglazier also described a program to support scientific libraries on the continent of Africa and in Iraq and spoke of his office’s efforts to keep open scientific communication channels with countries the US does not have either diplomatic or economic relations. These programs demonstrate how science can be used as a tool to overcome diplomatic obstacles and improve communications and access to information. Colglazier spoke of how scientific expertise and cooperation can positively influence problems that nations face every day, whether it be dealing with natural disasters, health issues or ensuring national security. Countries that stay at the forefront of science will be those that are increasing their investments in education, scientific research and research and development. These investments lead to improved economic development.

The third panelist was Herman Winick, a member of the FIP Executive Committee (Councilor) and retired physicist from the Department of Applied Physics, Stanford University. (Winick is also a former Chair of the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists.) During the session, he talked passionately about the benefits of international collaborations in science, economics and cultural areas. He eloquently affirmed the statement by the APS Council in November 1989, “Science belongs to all humanity and transcends national boundaries…science can serve as a bridge for mutual understanding across political and ideological divisions and as a vehicle for the enhancement of peace.”

Winick gave details of his involvement with the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME). SESAME is a major intergovernmental scientific facility under construction near Amman, Jordan whose members are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. The commissioning of the machine is expected in late 2015. This facility follows the model of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, with different scientific aims but with the same cultural and economic vision to establish scientific links to foster better understanding and a culture of peace, trust and cooperation. In the way that CERN played a role in bringing together scientists from the East and the West during the Cold War, so does SESAME in bringing together scientists from countries in the Middle East, some of which do not have diplomatic relations. Again, we see how science can serve as a vehicle for dialogue and the sharing of knowledge.

In addition to the meeting sessions, the Coalition welcomed several graduate student representatives. These students will officially represent their organizations in the Coalition. APS is pleased to have Vikram Singh Prasher represent the Society. Vikram is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts – Lowell. He will serve as a liaison between the Coalition and the graduate student members of APS. He will work to bring the voices of physics graduate students to the Coalition and ensure that the physics graduate student community is better aware of the connection between science and human rights as well as the efforts of the Coalition.

Information about previous Coalition meetings can be found in our previous report in the May 2013 issue of the APS Forum on International Physics newsletter as well as in the “CIFS Briefs” of the June 2013 issue of APS News (vol. 22, No. 6, pp 4).

We encourage APS members to attend the next AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting to be held in Washington, D.C., January 27-28, 2014.

Juan Gallardo,, is retired from the Advanced Accelerator Group, Brookhaven National Laboratory. He has served on the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), including as Chair in 2007. In addition, he has been a member of the APS Andrei Sakharov Prize Selection Committee. Michele Irwin,, is the International Programs Administrator at APS where she works closely with CIFS. Both represent APS at the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition and serve on the Coalition’s Council.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.