Human rights education and career opportunities for scientists could foster systemic change

In March 2020, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted a General Comment on the connections between science and the full enjoyment of ESC rights. This statement interpreting the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications highlights the important connections between scientific evidence and the rights to health, education, freedom from discrimination, and many others.  

Although this is the first General Comment regarding the right to science, the recognition of the essential role of science and technology to human rights is not new. For decades, scientific methods, tools, and technologies have been applied in human rights practice. However, the scientists and engineers engaged in rights-based projects are all too often located through luck and contribute their skills as volunteers. These happy accidents will continue to be necessary until the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) community cultivates an educational and professional infrastructure that respects human rights and encourages all scientists, engineers, and health professionals to see active engagement in human rights practice as an important part of their social responsibilities. We need a public interest pipeline for scientists, engineers, and health professionals who want to build careers in human rights.

Scientists and scientific organizations have increasingly embraced their roles in advancing human rights. This can be seen in the growing number of matching services that help NGOs and researchers find each other. (NAS websiteresearch4impactOn-call ScientistsSociology Action NetworkStatistics Without Borders.) These initiatives have made meaningful impacts, but they are often based on the volunteered time of individuals and are not sufficient to address the systemic changes that are needed to fully realize the right to science or the human rights with which that right is intertwined. That will require a deeper, institutionalized approach to access to information, education, research, and technology.

We need a public interest pipeline for scientists, engineers, and health professionals who want to build careers in human rights.

One approach has been to fully incorporate scientific methods into the ongoing work of human rights organizations. Physicians for Human Rights, for example, is an NGO entirely dedicated to the incorporation of scientific evidence in their advocacy. Human Rights Watch’s in-house quantitative analysis team is another approach. But not even the largest international human rights organizations can staff every scientific method or tool that might become useful, not to mention the capacities of smaller and community-based NGOs that focus their expertise on local human rights concerns. But those local groups often share common scientific concerns; for example, extractive projects that impact clusters of communities could greatly benefit from a scientific advisor who has knowledge and experience about the industry and the local situation. Such an advisor could educate local advocates so they can develop rights-based alternatives, mitigation strategies, remedies, and reforms. That requires experts with different types of technical expertise and experience in community-led or civic science.

STEM students and early career scientists are keen to apply their specialized knowledge to social justice. But they have few opportunities to learn civic science methods or rights-based research responsibilities in their required coursework. There are even fewer opportunities to become a full-time practitioner in human rights research or consulting.  

What would a human-rights-and-STEM education pathway look like?  

  • Students seeking a degree in chemistry, ecology, sociology, civil engineering, or any other discipline in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) should have opportunities to see how that field can impact (both positively and negatively) human rights. For example, many US universities now offer a human rights minor but very few have specialized courses in human rights for science or engineering majors and most of those are in global or public health-related tracks. The University of Connecticut is currently the only university in the US that offers a human rights minor in its school of engineering. The University of Dayton’s peace building engineering courses are another example of what this could look like.  

  • STEM students who want to pursue a public interest/public service career will need experiential education opportunities, internships, externships, and fellowships. Some of these opportunities can start with universities, but donors will need to support the NGOs that provide these placements.  

  • Universities and professional associations should provide incentives that encourage STEM students to explore science in the public interest as a career with equal prestige as careers in academia, and should encourage faculty to teach these courses. Developing and sustaining academic centers for research on the impact of science on human rights such as the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon are another example.  

With this educational and training infrastructure in place, there must be jobs for these well-prepared students upon graduation. The reality is that few scientists have been able to transfer their passion for human rights into full-time careers. Very few organizations specialize in providing scientific and technical support for human rights organizations. Most universities and private scientific companies do not see active engagement in human rights as central to their mission.  

Leveraging a fuller range of scientific and technological expertise and resources for human rights will require two critical changes in the status quo. First, organizations dedicated to pro bono or low bono scientific consultation for human rights need to be built. A handful of such NGOs exist—ELAW, AIDA, EAAF—but this does not even begin to fill the needs. An effort similar to the Ford Foundation’s project to support legal aid offices is needed to fund new scientific consulting organizations and their project partners is needed. Funding is also needed for human rights NGOs and international organizations to hire scientists and engineers to work alongside human rights practitioners.

Many university departments are enthusiastic about human rights education but do not apply that to real-world advocacy because it is seen as too political.  

Second, the assumptions used by academic institutions and especially private consulting firms to decide whether to take on a human rights project need to be challenged if they are to seize the opportunities to advance human rights. Many university departments are enthusiastic about human rights education but do not apply that to real-world advocacy because it is seen as too political.Many academics do not want to become expert witnesses in litigation and may decline projects if they seem risky. Engineering and environmental science consulting firms often offer their employees pro bono hours, but they generally prohibit any work for communities impacted by their particular industry as a conflict of interest. This overbroad determination is unnecessary; it looks at potential immediate harms to the institution or company, not the long-term improvement to their interests that work for the public interest would accomplish. It reinforces the status quo for those with power and ensures that many communities will not have access to the kind of knowledge they need to fully engage in human rights protection, including for example, the public processes for environmental impact assessments.  

As in education, making this shift will require incentives that reward contributions to human rights. It will also require stronger protections for scientists, engineers, and other technologists who take action to prevent  their companies from being complicit in human rights violations, as seen in recent actions at Google and Amazon.  

Not all scientists need to be human rights practitioners. Not all human rights practitioners need to be scientists. But building a pipeline for those who want to work at the intersection would create opportunities for the types of systemic change possible when the human right to science is fully realized.


This series was developed in partnership with the University of Dayton Human Rights Center as part of the 2019 Social Practice of Human Rights Conference. To read more, visit our partnership page.