Few articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) have received less attention than the right to science. All signatory members agreed that the right of everyone to “share in scientific advancement and its benefits” [Article 27(1)] is to be promoted and protected in every place around the globe (United Nations, 1948). The right to science is further secured in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This not only reaffirms it as a basic human right, but also, upon coming into force in 1976, established the responsibility of governments to respect the right of everyone to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications”. States are required to conserve, develop and diffuse science, respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research, and encourage international contacts and cooperation in science [Article 15(1) (b)].
Of the 30 articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to science has perhaps the most complex history. Spanning more than seven decades, from its earliest expression in the UDHR in 1948 to a formal interpretation of the scope of its content by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in 2020, the right to science was deliberated during a formative time in which knowledge and application of scientific advances became critical to all forms of everyday life. Fortunately, one of the outcomes of this extensive deliberation and analysis of the right to science is a framework that can be used by governments and other stakeholders to address pressing societal challenges. As of 2019, the most pressing social challenge is the pandemic caused by a coronavirus, commonly referred to as COVID-19.
Within the proposed framework, the General Comment elaborates upon five elements that define the contours of the right to science, namely, availability, accessibility, acceptability, quality, and the protection of freedom of scientific research (CESCR, 2020, paras 16–20). Also within the framework, the General Comment lists four key measures that States must put in place to advance the right to participate in and enjoy the benefits of scientific progress (CESCR, 2020, paras 86–89). These include: (a) the establishment of a normative legal framework that protects against all forms of discrimination; (b) the development of a national plan to promote and disseminate scientific progress to all individuals, taking into account protections against misleading pseudoscience as well as ensuring ethical standards in science; (c) the identification of benchmarks to monitor the implementation and progress of the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress at the national level; and, (d) the establishment of judicial and administrative mechanisms that will allow victims of this right to access appropriate remedies.
As we write this editorial (December 2020), the spread of coronavirus and its consequences are at the forefront of global public concern. A universal human rights approach appears well-suited to address a universal health care problem. Using the right to science to frame a universal response to the pandemic is a unique opportunity to elevate the status of this right and provide concrete examples of how it should be applied. This is especially critical given that many elements remain unimplemented and the potential is not fully realized. The pandemic has given us a chance to take this right seriously and examine how a more fully realized implementation of the right to science would allow a better response for the next pandemic. Accordingly, some of the elements associated with the right are elaborated upon here.
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Sianko N, Balidemaj Basha A, Small M. The importance of the right to science during pandemics. Kontakt. 2021;23(2):59-61. doi: 10.32725/kont.2021.012.