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GSA Examines Links between Science and Human Rights

Science and Human Rights CoalitionScience, technology, and human rights intersect in a variety of important ways that have significant implications for both the scientific enterprise as well as society’s ability to benefit and to be protected from any harmful practices in research, development and their applications. GSA and the American Geosciences Institute held a focus group last fall to clarify some of these linkages for the geoscience community.

The intersection of science, technology, and human rights is addressed in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966); namely, that all people have the right to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.” The concept of a right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications is not well understood, and the United Nations has offered no guidance on how the right should be implemented in practice.

The GSA-AGI focus group was part of a larger effort by the scientific community to assist with conceptualizing this right. Both organizations are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Coalition, which currently includes 50 scientific, engineering, and health societies. Sixteen focus group interviews were conducted, with a total of 145 participants. During the focus groups, participants were asked to respond to a set of ten open-ended questions about the benefits of scientific progress and its applications in terms of their own discipline and the corresponding responsibilities of governments related to scientific freedom, international contacts and cooperation, and the conservation, development, and diffusion of their discipline.

A recently-released report i summarizes the four most commonly coded themes that emerged in geoscience focus groups and compares them with the other focus groups. Three of the four most common geoscience themes match those of focus group participants overall: education and training, funding, and government regulation. However, the fourth major theme from the GSA-AGI focus group was distinct: ecological, environmental, climate, wildlife.

Ecological, Environmental, Climate, Wildlife was tagged far more often in the GSA-AGI focus group transcript than it was for all the other groups, with the exception of the ecologists’ focus group. A common theme in the focus group was that the advancement of knowledge in the geosciences enhances the predictive power for natural hazards and outcomes of environmentally invasive activities. The knowledge of natural processes, such as climate, the hydrological cycle, and plate tectonics, past and present, is critical in making better informed decisions and government policies, such as environmental regulations or the management of vital resources (e.g., water). Topically, the focus group had much to say about energy and extractive technologies for fossil fuels. An interesting point made about this was that geoscience spans both the active side (resource extraction, construction, etc.) and protective side (conservation, investigation of negative health impacts, etc.) of environmental activities.

Funding was tagged 45 times, which reflects the general sentiment expressed by the focus group that lack of funding from the government is a hindrance to geology as a science. Focus group participants stated that government should fund initiatives for science that offer points of exchange for students and researchers to interact across borders.

Government Regulations was tagged 36 times by the focus group. Some government regulations and policies were perceived in both negative and positive contexts by the participants in relation to geology. For the negative, visa and travel restrictions for scientists were discussed as being far too tight, holding back development of international cooperation on various scientific activities in geology. For the positive, regulations and policies were described as necessary to safeguard the public from the harms of natural or manmade hazards.

Education & Training in geology, and the sciences in general, was considered to be crucial to the development, diffusion, and conservation of the field by the focus group participants. Government funding is of particular priority here since basic STEM education, scholarships and grants, and international exchanges of both students and geology experts, hinge on steady monetary support. Some participants also mentioned that some restrictions on field work could be loosened. Overzealous safety protocols were seen as a barrier to students gaining hands-on experience earlier on in their studies. The need for education of the general public in geology was also pointed out.

A full analysis and recommendations from these focus groups is still in development and will be presented the United Nations later this fall.

— Kasey White

i This summary was prepared by Margaret Weigers Vitullo Ph.D. of the American Sociological Association and Jessica Wyndham J.D. of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for the Service to the STEM Community working group of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition.