November 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 8

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From the Executive Officer

Sally Hillsman was on vacation and unable to write a Vantage Point column for the November issue of Footnotes. In her absence we are running a column from the January 2009 issue of Footnotes that remains relevant today.

Science Serving Human Rights

sally hillsman

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

Last month, the United Nations (UN) celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Four years ago, in celebration of ASA’s 100th year, Council released the Association’s most comprehensive statement on human rights to date. In addition, in 2007, a proposal was submitted and ASA Council approved the formation of a Section-in-Formation on Human Rights. ASA has a long and admirable history of active engagement in the vital work of responding to threats against the intellectual freedom and civil rights of scientists worldwide. In August 2005, Council reaffirmed the commitment of ASA to these pursuits and also affirmed the commitment of our organization and discipline to supporting the basic civil rights and political freedom of people of all nations, principles embraced by the UDHR (see


As the universal human rights movement presses forward in the 21st century, scientific disciplines—by their nature universalistic—will play an increasingly important role. This is reflected in the christening of the new Science and Human Rights Coalition, of which ASA is a founding member, by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). For more than a year ASA has been engaged with about 20 other science disciplines in developing this coalition under the umbrella of the AAAS. We helped conceptualize the coalition’s mission and its portfolio of activities. Details are presented in an editorial in the November 28, 2008, Science (p. 1303), co-authored by AAAS sociologist Mona Younis and Leonard Rubenstein, President of Physicians for Human Rights and Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

As the universal human rights
movement presses forward in the
21st century, scientific disciplines—
by their nature universalistic—
will play an increasingly important role.

Younis and Rubenstein wrote, "[O]ne lesson of the past 60 years is that governments’ commitment to human rights is only as strong as the demands of their citizens. As respected members of society, scientists are vital to securing governments’ adherence to human rights." Sociologists will not find this alien to our work. Recall the plenary address at the 2004 ASA Annual Meeting by Mary Robinson on the UN Millennium Development Goals (see Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, inspired attendees by stressing the important global human rights objectives of the Millennium Development Goals.

The AAAS coalition, and ASA’s role in it, is a response by the science community to this growing human rights movement. It will help focus science on more coordinated efforts in the pursuit of universal human rights and actively link it with human rights communities, helping them understand the unique capabilities of science—statistical, forensic, research, technological—in pursuing our mutual human rights goals.

The objectives resonate with a statement by Nobel Laureate Thorsten Wiesel, former chair of the National Academies of Science Committee on Human Rights, included in ASA’s 2005 human rights statement: "The UDHR is the anchor of our work and, given the international character of science and its pursuit of truth, it holds particular significance for us as scientists. . . ."

The Public Sociology Fit

Human rights advocacy by the science community is increasingly recognized as an integral part of the role of science in society. The AAAS coalition recognizes that many individual scientists need to better understand the full implications of the human rights mission of science. They should be aware that human rights include the social and economic rights essential to human well-being—the right to health, food, a clean environment among others—and to appreciate the role scientists have in securing these rights in order to ensure all people’s ability to "share in scientific advancement and its benefits," as expressed by the UDHR. It is not surprising that the concept of public sociology has emerged in recent years as it becomes clearer how fundamental the right of access to the fruits of science is to achieving universal human rights.

This aligns with ASA’s commitment to the free movement of scholars and students and the reduction of barriers to scholarly inquiry and exchange. The free exchange of scientific principles is central to the mission of the new AAAS coalition, which affirms "the principle that science is fundamental to designing and implementing successful international collaboration on human development. Therefore, it encourages the work of the world scientific community to achieve steady global progress on human rights through efforts to gain the release of all scientists who are unjustly imprisoned for their public speech or academic work. The world scientific community can achieve its human rights goals through activities of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, the Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the efforts of individual scholarly organizations worldwide including our sister societies in the social sciences."

Perhaps it was prescient of the ASA statement to say that "[ASA] urges all governments . . . to uphold the spirit and the substance of the articles of the UDHR and . . . the freedom to participate in and benefit from scientific advancement." But this brings a challenge to the scientific community to learn how to become a human rights constituency, given the often "political" flavor that is at odds with scientific culture. Although, it is just such culture (i.e., traditions of intellectual independence and integrity) that could propel human rights into the modern age. 

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at


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