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May 1, 2014

Science and Human Rights: A Bridge Towards Human Dignity

By Jeffrey H. Toney

Each of us wants our research to ultimately make our world a better place, to benefit society. An emerging field bridging science and human rights offers many opportunities for scientists, engineers, and human rights organizations to work together towards their mutual interests.

The goal is simple, compelling, and profound: "recognition of the inherent dignity and . . . the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world" as stated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Human rights organizations embrace enormous challenges of documenting human rights violations across the globe. They have benefited greatly from a scientific approach. A recent example is Amnesty International USA working with a forensic anthropologist and a digital image analyst to identify conflict regions in Syria. Physicians for Human Rights found the cause of an outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe to be the centralization of the water system by their own government.

Sigma Xi is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Coalition that collectively reaches well over 1 million scientists and engineers. Sigma Xi members are encouraged to contribute to human rights issues.

One opportunity is an AAAS initiative, the On-call Scientists program. It seeks volunteers who have scientific and engineering expertise and links them with human rights organizations. You could also contribute to the coalition's working groups, which are focused on the welfare of scientists; ethics and human rights; service to the STEM community; service to the human rights community; and education and information resources.

Since the launch of the coalition in 2009, members have been working to help the United Nations clarify and bring to life the meaning of the right to "the benefits of scientific progress." This right is recognized in Article 15 (1)(b) of the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The coalition's efforts recently culminated in a report to the UN. It could lead to a general comment articulating the meaning and steps towards implementation of Article 15 (1)(b). For the 160 UN member states that have ratified this treaty, this could shape global public policy, ultimately obligating UN members to fulfill promises to give their citizens access to science and technology that we take for granted. If achieved, this could be the stone plopped into a still pool, creating ripple effects such as helping people achieve their potential through better education, access to clean water, electricity, more nutritious food, and healthcare.

I invite you to become part of this mission.

This article was orginally published in the May-June 2014 issue of American Scientist. Jeffrey H. Toney is a representative of Sigma Xi on the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition. He is also the provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at Kean University in Union, NJ. More about the coalition may be found at http://www.aaas.org/program/science-human-rights-coalition. Sigma Xi also has a Science and Human Rights webpage.

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