The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

Event report: AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition

31 January 2012

The Meeting of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting took place in Washington DC on 23 January 2012. SPSSI is a member organization of the Coalition which has the aim “to facilitate communication and partnerships on human rights within and across the scientific community, and between the scientific and human rights communities.”

The meeting included sessions of the working groups of the Coalition and a series of talks and workshops that addressed the intersection of science and the rights of indigenous communities and individuals. These presentations offered information and ideas to help the science community advance ongoing legal, political, and social policy issues affecting indigenous communities. I describe a couple of these presentations below.

Rebecca Tsosie, Executive Director of the Indian Legal Program at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University, opened her talk by asking how science has been used in the past for policy change relating to indigenous community rights. Addressing this question involves understanding the structure in which individual self-determination is achieved in an equitable manor in accordance with the communities’ cultural, political, and economic needs. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s which was adopted in 2007 is a good framework for this policy discussion and provides a platform for dialogue between scientists and indigenous groups.

Professor Tsosie emphasized that public policy reflects certain values over time and that science is used as a tool to shape those values. This is different from the idea that scientists want X or Y policies per se. The narrative of civil rights that developed over this century and the last doesn’t always fit into the experience of indigenous people. Today there is specific need for public policy development for indigenous people in the area of environmental rights, public health, and cultural resources. There is a dual role for scientists in advancing these policy goals. Firstly, science provides the empirical knowledge that informs policy-making such as when ethnographic evidence is used to determine the character of a tribe for legal purposes. Secondly, there is a political process that influences the science and scientists can be involved in this process.

In a later session, Indigenous People’s, Human Rights, Science and Technology, Keith Harper, a Partner and Chair of the Native American Practice group at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, LLP, and Megan Bang, Assistant Professor at the College of Education, University of Washington, led a workshop on future areas of collaboration between scientists and indigenous communities. Keith Harper said that one of the areas of contention for collaboration between scientists and indigenous communities is the history of indigenous knowledge being appropriated for commercial knowledge without adequate respect for intellectual property rights. Whenever the government talks to indigenous communities about policies the key word for collaboration is “consent”. Policymakers need to provide all the necessary knowledge for communities to make informed decisions about what they want. Otherwise policies will recreate some of the negative features of the past. In the litigation context science is extremely important too because it allows us to know the environmental, social, and economic impact that policies have on communities. However, though scientific analysis is essential for successful litigation, scientists must also overcome the problem that indigenous communities are often suspicious of the intentions of scientists.

Professor Bang asked the question: how do issues of human rights, STEM education and indigenous communities intersect? For long-term change, it is important that researchers push findings down into the field of practice. A key part of this will be promoting the direct involvement of indigenous people in the research. Recently some research projects have made a very positive innovation where the indigenous community acts as the dispenser of funding and contracts with the research organizations that it chooses. This has the effect of altering the knowledge base and making it more relevant to the communities themselves. This aspect of the “architecture” of research projects is extremely important.

For more information on the meeting visit

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin