Categories: Influencing Policy9 November 20184.2 min read

Science as a human right

It’s not news that Brexit represents a threat to UK science. From the inability to attract international talent, to the loss of funding and the problems getting imports into the country and exports out, UK science is in danger. Loss of science in the UK is not the loss of a luxury item. It is not a vanity project we can live without. UK science underpins the economy, from development of clean energy to the coordination of international clinical trials, the UK leads and we in the UK benefit. Failure to support UK science will leave all of us materially poorer. It will leave us with a less innovative health care system, with dirty air, and expensive food.

And after all of that we may also be deprived of a fundamental human right.

World Science Day

Tomorrow (10 November) is World Science Day for Peace and Development, a day to highlight the importance of science in and for society. This year's theme is “Science, a Human Right”, in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

70 years ago, on Dec 10 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved by the United Nations. This Declaration laid out a manifesto of fundamental rights for all persons, of all nations. The Declaration is binding for all United Nations Member states, but many of the basic rights and dignities to be afforded to every person have since found their way into national and international laws around the world. For many people these rights fundamentally underpin their political outlook, whether left or right.

Despite near universal awareness of the existence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many people probably do not know what all the rights are, or how far they extend into their society.

The first article of the Declaration states:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

This is probably what most people think of when they think the Declaration of Human Rights. As we go through the articles, they move on to equality (Article 2) liberty (A.3) and prohibition of slavery (A.4), and torture (5). So far these are all reflected in the statement made in Article 1. But from here on the articles start to cover legal rights, privacy, movement, asylum and property rights. Reading the Declaration of Human Rights, the breadth of the rights are surprising and it is thought-provoking to imagine how the world might be were we to live by the vision laid out.

Science is a Human Right

Of all the articles, arguably the most surprising right comes in Article 27. It is laid out in two parts and states:

1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

The idea that we all have a right to benefit from scientific advancement is something we do not often explicitly think about as a society. Public engagement practitioners recognise that people’s lives are improved when they understand and can engage with science but Article 27 is a different beast from public engagement. Article 27 does not say an individual has the right to learn about science so that they may make better choices for themselves. Article 27 recognises that science is a societal good and firmly makes the case that every individual has the right to benefit, regardless of their education, wealth or background.

Science in the UK

Science is a major player in the UK and we have all been benefiting from scientific advances. This benefit is not only from adoption of new developments but comes also from the wealth created by the fact the UK is a leader in many science and technology sectors. From particle physics to genomics, the UK takes a leading role. The 100,000 Genomes Project has been ground-breaking in its efforts to bring genomics into the clinic. We host the European headquarters of many pharmaceutical, engineering and technology companies. We receive the largest share of European Research Council money behind Germany and we punch above our weight on publications and other research outputs.

Science from the most abstract academic project to commercial R&D is supporting the UK’s health and wealth.

About the Author

Sarion Bowers is the Policy Lead at the Wellcome Sanger Institute