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Scientists and rights

Researchers should support new initiatives aimed at engaging them with human-rights groups.

Six foreign medics escaped the Libyan death penalty last year thanks to intense diplomacy, supported by the advocacy and decisive expertise of scientists. But the researchers' involvement was largely a matter of luck and serendipity. Science and scientists have much untapped potential to contribute to human-rights issues, but until now there have been limited efforts to systematically consolidate the interactions between science and human-rights groups. Two new initiatives of the Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science are intended to help fill that gap.

Its “On-call” Scientists program launched last month aims to create a database of scientists who will volunteer time — be it a few days or a few months — and expertise, and human-rights organizations — including non-governmental organizations and international agencies such as the United Nations — seeking practical help or advice. (See

'Human rights' covers a gamut of issues, from exposing abuses to disaster relief. The range of scientific advice sought is correspondingly broad — statistical or methodological help to get a more accurate picture of conflict or ethnic cleansing, advice on water issues from hydrologists, or forensic help to document mass executions or overturn false convictions.

The service faces a steep learning curve in deciphering the diverse needs of human-rights groups, and how scientists might be able to help in ways perhaps not yet imagined. But better communication between scientists and the alphabet soup of human-rights groups — and between those groups themselves on technical issues — is long overdue.

Another welcome initiative is due in January 2009. Many learned societies, as well as academic groups such as Scholars at Risk, have a long history in upholding human rights and academic freedom — for example, defending scientists under threat from oppressive governments, using satellite imagery to expose human-rights abuses and speaking out on abuse wherever it occurs. To put such efforts on a firmer footing, American organizations are to launch the US Science and Human Rights Coalition, a forum in which scientific bodies and human-rights groups can share experiences and best practice. Given the US presidential election, the timing could not be better. For the past eight years, American human-rights groups have seen their international influence undermined by the US administration's diminishing moral authority and standing in the world. Scientists can, and should, help reinstate the fundamental principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

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Scientists and rights. Nature 456, 2 (2008).

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