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Science  26 Feb 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5969, pp. 1097
DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5969.1097

25 February 2010

Edited by Edward W. Lempinen

Science and Society

Science-Rights Coalition Has Global Impact in First Year

Productive partners. Villagers in Madhya Pradesh join Geoscientists Without Borders in a water study for the Indian state.

One group studied the human impacts of gold mining in Guinea. Another analyzed the economic aid to rebuild New Orleans' hurricane-ravaged infrastructure. And others are working to improve on a vital tradition, assessing the most effective ways to protect scientists from political persecution.

It was a busy first year for the AAAS-led Science and Human Rights Coalition and the “On-call” Scientists. At two days of meetings at the association's Washington, D.C., headquarters, organizers and members evaluated progress so far and charted ambitious new initiatives.

The Coalition has created a “starter kit” to help scientific organizations develop their own human rights programs, built a comprehensive bibliography of science and human rights materials, and taught researchers to respond to alleged rights violations.

Building on this foundation, the Coalition plans a substantial campaign in 2010 to support a United Nations covenant on the universal access to scientific knowledge.

Science and human rights “benefit from each other's strengths,” said Jessica Wyndham, project director in the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program. “Scientists bring technical knowledge to human rights problems and human rights organizations help scientists realize the potential impacts of their research.”

Since its founding in 1977, the Science and Human Rights Program has promoted science-based solutions to investigate mass atrocities, develop electronic encryption technologies to protect human rights communication, and analyze satellite imagery to document human rights violations. The program also operates a service to publicize human rights threats against scientists around the globe.

When Susan Hinkins became chair of the American Statistical Society's committee on scientific freedom and human rights, “it felt as if every new chair of the committee had to reinvent the process and rebuild the connections,” she said. “So I was very eager to participate in the development of the Coalition.”

A year after its debut, the Coalition has grown to more than 45 member or affiliate science societies—including the American Psychological Association and Sigma Xi, the research society—along with about 50 individual members.

Participants at the 22 January meeting discussed the ethical dilemmas surrounding scientific research for the military, as well as stories from survivors of human rights violations.

In one session, groups such as Geoscientists Without Borders demonstrated how researchers can use their tools and training to benefit communities in unexpected ways.

The group, part of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, is part of an ongoing project to develop evacuation plans and shelters for communities along Sumatra's remote southwestern coast after a devastating 9.1 magnitude earthquake hit the island in 2004.

Volunteers used tsunami and earthquake rupture modeling to design tall evacuation towers, said program manager Rhonda Jacobs. The new designs “would allow residents to climb above the tsunami, as opposed to outrunning it by moving inland,” she explained.

Programs such as AAAS's “On-call” Scientists, which connected the geologist to the Guinea study and the economist with the New Orleans project, can have an immediate impact on communities in need, the participants agreed.

“As scientists, we have a love for finding answers and strive during our careers to use our research for beneficial activities,” said Alexander Mihai Popovici, current committee chair of Geoscientists Without Borders. “It is great to see both these passions come together, bringing basic human rights and the benefits of science to people who need it.”

A day before the meeting, the Coalition's Working Group on the Welfare of Scientists held a training session on the best practices for defending scientists against human rights violations. With its partner Scholars at Risk, an international network of higher education institutions, the working group offered a primer in international and regional human rights laws pertaining to scientists.


Synthetic DNA Plan Limits Risk, Experts Say

Significant advances in synthetic gene production have raised a critical question for industry leaders and national security experts: How can the research and trade in tailor-made DNA continue while assuring that the materials aren't available to criminals and terrorists?

Proposed federal guidelines can secure genetic material that could be used to create harmful pathogens without stifling promising research in medicine, agriculture, and energy production, experts said at an 11 January meeting at AAAS. The guidelines propose voluntary screening of both potential buyers and the sequences they're seeking.

While some participants suggested fine-tuning, “the overall sentiment was that the guidance is well thought out, facilitates advances in scientific knowledge, and allows for international engagement,” says a summary from the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. [Download the summary]

Following the release of the guidelines last November, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of State asked AAAS to convene a group to informally evaluate the draft guidance. Nearly a hundred researchers, industry representatives, and policy experts gathered at the meeting organized by Gerald Epstein, director of the AAAS Center, and Kavita Berger, the Center's associate program director for biosecurity.

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