Science as a human right: the need of a unified concept


Although enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the understanding of science as a human right – and the obligations arising therefrom – have remained unclear and underdeveloped. At the forefront of efforts to clarify the human rights perspective of science and to harness its transformative power, UNESCO invited experts to discuss main challenges and opportunities in the context of the 8th Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Social Sciences held by the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO), in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 21 November 2018.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that science and its applications are in harmony with the full set of universal standards. A human-rights approach to science must be at the heart of what we want to be a sustainable future,” said Nada Al-Nashif, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences. “Key steps are to define its normative content, to elucidate the related state obligations and also to consider what are the necessary conditions for its implementation.”

Mikel Mancisidor, President of the International Institute for the Human Right to Science and Vice-Chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), is responsible for the drafting of a general comment on the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications as articulated in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). He highlighted two main challenges that affect the recognition of science as a human right. The first is the general understanding of the right to science as access to material goods – a medicine that can cure a disease, for example.

“Science is more than a material dimension, it means access to knowledge. It is not only an instrument to achieve material benefits, but a cultural right in itself. More than access to its applications, science means participation and is essential to build democratic societies”, he said.
The second challenge is how to foster participation and make science as a human right a reality. “Science needs to be at the service of humanity. We have seen growing disregard about knowledge, with the spread of fake news. In this context, the mission of education is to promote respect for knowledge”, Mancisidor indicated.

Reminding the 70 years since the adoption of the UDHR, celebrated this year, Mancisidor also highlighted UNESCO has had a critical role in shifting the understanding of science at the service of destruction, as articulated during the Second World War, to science as a cultural right that needs to operate in the benefit of society.

“The birth of UNESCO was extremely important in that context. The final version of Article 27 asserts that everyone has the right to participate and benefit from science. This perspective is key to understand the right to science”, he said.

The human face of science

According to Margaret Vitullo, Deputy Director of the American Sociological Association (ASA), three essential tools are necessary to make for continuous access to science: access to education at every level, access to information and communication technologies, and funding.

In view of the loss of prestige of science in the last years, Vitullo defended improvements in the way science is taught: “Since early ages, the scientific talk has been abstract. When we connect science to social problem solving, we can enhance better understanding on the importance of science. We need to show how physics, chemistry and formulas have a value to improve knowledge on how to solve problems”

Elisa Reis, Vice-President of the International Science Council (ISC), explored the ties between scientific knowledge and policy-making. “To make science a human right, we need a twofold perspective: science for policy and policy for science. These two targets contemplate science as a human right in its full sense, as a benefit and as participation”, she observed.

Dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, the panel discussion “Science, a Human Right” was a continuation step of the celebration of the World Science Day for Peace and Development on 10 November.