The rapid and intense convergence of the physical, digital, and biological worlds has the potential to transform society and even human beings, for example through genetic modification or human-machine interfaces. To ensure the responsible development and use of these powerful technologies, human rights should be at the forefront of decision-making. Incorporating a human rights framework provides an opportunity for a collaborative, holistic, and inclusive approach that goes beyond the mere mitigation of risks and enables the responsible exploration of the opportunities offered by scientific and technological progress.
Of particular relevance in this context is the human right to science. The right to science has its origins in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948). The right to science is furthermore protected under Article 15 of the legally binding International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966), which has been adopted by 171 States. The right to science is an umbrella term for various legal provisions on science. In essence, the right to science obliges States to:
- recognise the right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications (Art. 15(1)(b) ICESCR)
- conserve, develop and diffuse science (Art. 15(2) ICESCR)
- respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research (Art. 15(3) ICESCR)
- recognise the benefits to be derived from the encouragement and development of international contacts and co-operation in the scientific fields (Art. 15(4) ICESCR).
One area that has not received sufficient attention is that the right to science advocates for the responsible development and use of scientific progress and its applications. This goes beyond the mere mitigation of risks and requires the consideration of opportunities for benefit of scientific and technological progress. The right to science is therefore a crucial tool for anticipating both the benefits and the harms of scientific progress and its application.
The right to science is a living human right.
Although the right to science is a human right dating back to 1948, when it was adopted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is important to interpret this right in a contemporary context. Human rights provisions are deliberately worded in a generic manner, to stay flexible enough to respond to new challenges and developments, and to respond to the evolving needs of society. This ensures that the right to science remains relevant, meaningful, and applicable over time. A contemporary interpretation of the right to science shows that it is indeed a suitable tool for anticipation.
The right to science should include all sciences and should not be limited to natural sciences.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in its General Comment No. 25, outlines that the term science, which “encompasses natural and social sciences, refers both to a process following a certain methodology (‘doing science’) and to the results of this process (knowledge and applications).”1 However, some experts argue that all academic fields, including the humanities, should fall within the scope of the right to science. As such, the protection of the right to science should extend to all academic fields.
To fully bring the right to science into action, the rights and obligations derived from the human right to science need to be comprehensively identified.
To fully bring the right to science into action through its rights and State obligations, further legal research and practice are needed. Judicial and political pathways are particularly relevant for advancing the right to science. This involves lodging legal complaints to invoke the right to science before competent authorities, such as national courts, regional courts, and United Nations treaty bodies. Moreover, this can include submitting reports through the United Nations State reporting procedure or to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review.
Freedom of science is essential for the advancement and flourishing of science. Robust safeguards are needed to protect the rights, freedoms, and independence of scientists, scholars, and researchers.
States must respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research, which is inherent to the right to science (Article 15(3) ICESCR). Scientific progress and growth require an enabling environment for research, free from undue influences of any kind, such as political or commercial interests. The imposition of regulations, such as requiring all research proposals to conform to a particular national objective or subjecting research to public approval, can violate the freedom of science.
The right to science can legitimately be limited within the parameters of human rights law.
In the framework of human rights law, it is possible for States to limit the enjoyment of human rights according to specific criteria. Certain limitations on the right to science may be necessary because science and its applications can, in some contexts, negatively affect or stand in conflict with other human rights and/or the interests of society.
The legally binding ICESCR includes a general limitation clause, as elaborated in Article 4 ICESCR, which allows States to impose limitations under exceptional circumstances only if they are determined by the law and are compatible with the nature of these rights. Furthermore, these limitations must be solely for promoting general welfare in a democratic society.2
While, for instance, the freedom indispensable for scientific research must be respected, many aspects of the freedom can legitimately be limited by the State under the parameters of human rights law and among scientists themselves.
Science should be free from undue influence but conducted in a socially responsible manner. Socially responsible science should, in the first instance, be achieved through scientific self-regulation.
Science should be free from undue influence. However, it should be kept in mind that science is co-produced with society and therefore needs to be carried out in a socially responsible manner. Scientific self-regulation, such as codes of conduct, ethical safeguards, and rules regarding scientific integrity, can, as a first step, help ensure that science is carried out in a socially responsible manner.
Such ethical and professional standards should be consistent with human rights and consider broader societal contexts. Therefore, researchers and experts should have a collective discussion about the potential impact of their work. These experts should not be limited to laboratory scientists, but also include experts from different disciplines, such as science policy experts, social scientists, philosophers, and lawyers. This approach is similar to the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues (ELSI) movement in genetics research.
The enjoyment of the right to science can infringe upon the enjoyment of other human rights. Such conflicts require a balancing of interests and possibly limitations taken within the framework of human rights law.
The exercise of the right to science can lead to conflicts with and violations of other human rights. For example, research on genomic medicine requires large genomic datasets. However, the use of medical data required for research may conflict with the right to privacy (Article 17 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights). In such cases, a proper balance must be struck between the protected interests of the human rights concerned. Therefore, as human rights can affect or conflict with other human rights, they can be limited within the parameters of human rights law.
The right to benefit from scientific progress and its applications, as well as the right to be protected from its adverse effects are both rights under the right to science.
The advancement of science can bring both benefits and potential harms. Under the right to science, individuals have a right to benefit from scientific progress and its applications. They furthermore have a right to be protected against the adverse effects of scientific progress and its applications. Although both rights can co-exist, the protected interests of the rights must be properly weighed and balanced.
States should anticipate the opportunities for benefits and risks of harm of scientific progress and its applications. Under the right to science, such anticipation is composed of prevention, precaution, and due diligence.
Under the right to science, individuals have a right to benefit from scientific progress and its applications while also being protected against its adverse effects. A balancing of both rights is inherent to human rights law and can give rise to a State’s obligation to prevent and limit one human right in order to protect another. The obligation to prevent presupposes scientific certainty. Yet, States should also anticipate opportunities for benefit and risks of harm of scientific progress and its applications. Although not explicitly recognised legally, anticipation is encompassed within the current international legal framework, drawing upon the obligation to prevent harm under the right to science, the precautionary principle, and the concept of due diligence.
The precautionary principle involves taking measures to avoid or minimise risks of serious and irreversible harm, and to promote the opportunities for benefit, in cases where the scientific evidence is uncertain. Yet, the precautionary principle evolves with scientific knowledge, moving from precaution to prevention as the risk or benefit becomes scientifically certain. Thus, the precautionary principle can be seen as a trigger for the anticipation of potential harms, but also for the opportunities for benefit of scientific progress and its applications.
When taking preventive or precautionary measures, States should use their best efforts to prevent or mitigate harm in specific circumstances. This is where the standard of due diligence comes in. The assessment of the appropriate standard of conduct consists of a consideration of the likelihood of a risk, legally protected interests, and competing interests. Importantly, the opportunities for benefit of scientific progress and its applications must not be forgotten in the assessment.
Prevention, precaution, and due diligence all involve an assessment of the necessity and proportionality of measures. Balancing competing interests and considering the long-term consequences of decisions are key to this process. Consequently, anticipatory measures must be necessary and proportionate to the seriousness of the risks, and ensure they do not result in disproportionate negative impacts on scientific freedom and progress, other human rights, or opportunities for future generations.
Anticipation for effective solutions can be achieved by a systemic integration or cross-fertilisation between different areas of international law.
Different areas of international law, such as environmental law, human rights law and intellectual property law, have different objectives, norms, and procedures when dealing with specific science and technology issues. This fragmentation can lead to challenges in effectively addressing these issues. By fostering a systemic integration or cross-fertilisation between the different domains of international law, effective solutions to address the complex challenges presented by science and technology along with tools for anticipation can be found.
State obligations to anticipate the benefits and harms of scientific progress must be adaptive and projective to include opportunities that benefit scientific progress and its applications.
Anticipation under the right to science goes beyond the prevention or mitigation of risks. It can also facilitate a collaborative and inclusive approach that enables the responsible exploration of the opportunities for benefit of scientific progress and its applications. The current precautionary and risk assessment approaches are insufficient in dealing with adaptive anticipation, which considers unpredictable situations, and projective anticipation, which deals with radically new futures. There is a need for new types of questions, such as “what if” questions, that explore possibilities and probabilities. Therefore, to effectively deal with anticipation, a new risk and benefits governance approach is necessary. This should be adaptive and projective to include opportunities for benefit of scientific progress and its applications.
Anticipation under the right to science can serve as a door-opener to, for example, cautiously lifting existing bans on heritable genome editing or other currently controversial issues that may be beneficial, relevant or necessary in the future.
Anticipation includes a long-term outlook that also considers future generations’ interests.
Anticipation means taking a long-term view that considers the interests of future generations. Intergenerational equity in anticipation is essential in the development of new technologies and innovations that may have positive or negative effects. It is important to thoroughly assess the potential impact of our actions on posterity and to approach decision-making processes with a sense of due diligence and responsibility to avoid missing opportunities or causing harm. To illustrate, scientific progress, such as research into transgenic trees (which may not be relevant today but may become highly relevant in the future due to climate change) must be allowed to continue. However, scientific progress must be carried out in a socially responsible manner and with due diligence. It is therefore essential that scientific progress takes place in a socially responsible and intergenerational equitable way.
Institutional capacity building and the use of scientific expert bodies are crucial for anticipation.
To manage risks associated with scientific progress and its applications, appropriate institutions must be established, and their capacities developed. Clear roles and responsibilities for those involved in this process must be defined.
While interdisciplinary bodies may not always be necessary for legal contexts, expert scientific bodies can assist legal procedures by providing expert testimony. Legal entities, such as courts and United Nations Committees, may have limited capacity and expertise in risk management and are obliged to employ legal methods. Therefore, scientific experts play a crucial role in providing scientific input. The establishment of expert bodies or science-policy interfaces, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), should be encouraged to effectively assess the danger and potential harm of scientific progress and its applications. However, this does not imply that scientists are the ones making decisions on what is considered appropriate risk management. The decision on the measures that are needed is a shared activity that is determined by society, courts, and other relevant entities.3
As a human right, the right to science requires diversity and non-discrimination.
The epistemic strength of science comes from the diversity of individuals, which requires inclusive participation and decision-making. To achieve this, research ought to encompass contributions from and for individuals of varied backgrounds.
The right to science is furthermore reliant on the principle of non-discrimination. According to Article 15(1)(b) ICESCR, all individuals have the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. Therefore, equity concerns associated with the distribution of risks and benefits linked to innovation must be addressed in advance. Anticipation under the right to science also involves considering potential disparities in access to scientific progress and its applications by potential users and engaging all individuals in participation at both national and global levels.
The right to science includes a right to participate in scientific progress.
All people — not only researchers — are entitled to participate in scientific progress and its anticipation. This involves more than just enjoying the benefits of scientific progress: it also involves actively contributing to and participating in scientific matters. Participation plays an important role in identifying and addressing both the risks and benefits associated with scientific progress. Participation also helps to ensure an equitable and anticipatory co-governance. One way to participate is through citizen science, where individuals provide data and other inputs directly to research studies or participate as research subjects. However, the right to participate in scientific progress does not extend to a right to determine research objectives, as this could potentially impinge upon the necessary freedom for scientific research and progress.
The right to science can serve as a lawful public interest in certain circumstances.
The right to science can be considered a lawful public interest in certain circumstances. As a result, the right to science may be invoked to authorise measures such as the disclosure of private health information in specific situations (in public health emergencies, for example), in order to further scientific advancement. The invocation of the right to science as a public interest may in turn conflict with other human rights, which may lead to a limitation of these rights within the parameters of human rights law.
To ensure the full enjoyment of the right to science as mandated by human rights law, governments have a responsibility to regulate the private sector.
Given that science is a public good, it is important that the private sector involved in scientific research also actively supports and promotes the right to science. However, the private sector has considerable power in areas such as innovation, access to science and its applications, and policy. To ensure the full realisation of the right to science, it is the responsibility of States to oversee and regulate both for-profit and not-for-profit entities. As these entities operate within the framework of State laws, it is in the power of States to encourage or even mandate certain private sector behaviour in relation to the protection of human rights.
The full flourishing of the right to science requires co-operation across all scientific disciplines and knowledge systems.
To ensure the uptake and anticipation of potentially beneficial technologies, it is essential to recognise the importance of collaboration across all scientific disciplines and knowledge systems, particularly at the interface between indigenous knowledge and science. A lack of trust in science can hinder progress and anticipation. To rebuild trust, it is important to respect indigenous cultural norms and protocols and to acknowledge and provide redress for past human rights violations by scientific organisations. Capacity-building is essential to overcome the inequitable distribution of resources and power that leads to the marginalisation of indigenous peoples and other disadvantaged groups.
International co-operation is an essential basis for anticipation, involving collaboration among governments, scientists, and international organisations.
Active co-operation between governments, scientists, and international organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is necessary for anticipatory measures to be taken. The importance of international co-operation is underlined by Article 15(4) ICESCR, which describes the benefits to be derived from the promotion and development of international contacts and co-operation in the field of science. International co-operation is also inherent in the safeguarding of scientific freedom and the promotion of scientific advancement. Fostering international co-operation requires embracing diversity and non-discrimination to nurture collaborations and partnerships, not only with countries in the global south but also with diverse knowledge systems, including indigenous knowledge.
Written in collaboration with Gérard Escher, GESDA. Thanks to Katja Achermann, Andrea Boggio, Yvonne Donders, Helle Porsdam, and Sebastian Porsdam Mann for their valuable feedback on earlier versions of this report. The final version is the sole responsibility of the author.1 UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 25: Science and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 15 (1) (b), (2), (3) and (4) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), E/C.12/GC/25 (2020), available at https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3899847. 2 The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that, in the enjoyment of those rights provided by the State in conformity with the present Covenant, the State may subject such rights only to such limitations as are determined by law only in so far as this may be compatible with the nature of these rights and solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society (Article 4 ICESCR). 3 This perspective aligns with the honest broker approach advocated by GESDA.