US: AAAS supports 'right to benefits of science'

The world's largest scientific society has thrown its weight behind efforts to figure out just what is meant by the human right to the benefits of science.

The right was first recognised by the United Nations in 1948 but is being revisited by Unesco, which in 2007 began work to clarify its practical implications. It regards the right as underdeveloped and insufficiently analysed or discussed by national governments.

This month, the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science contributed to that effort with a statement supporting the human right to the benefits of science.

The statement says the right lies at the heart of the association's mission and the social responsibilities of scientists. The association will engage in the current work on defining what the right means, and will discuss the issue with the US government and other organisations.

It will also tell its members and affiliates about the importance of being involved in those discussions.

The association's statement says the basic tenets of the right include:

* Ensuring equitable access to the benefits of scientific progress, with particular focus on vulnerable and marginalised groups.
* Investing in R&D and creating incentives for innovation to address forms of suffering experienced by these groups.
* Ensuring the freedom of scientists to engage in scientific inquiry while also conducting their work responsibly.
* Fostering international cooperation in science.

Jessica Wyndham, project director for the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, says the right to the benefits of scientific progress does not entitle everyone to receive free cosmetic surgery or hybrid cars.

She says it means that, at a minimum, the right is intended to ensure access to the basic science and technology required to live life with dignity, including essential health care, potable water and basic sanitation.

That could mean, for example, crafting exceptions to the intellectual property laws or finding other innovative solutions to allow access to essential medicines for the vulnerable and marginalised.

The right to the benefits of science was included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a legally binding treaty signed by 160 governments.