The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

Engaging Your Society in Human Rights

19 July 2012

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Coalition held its biannual meeting in Washington, July 16-17. The event brought together scientific associations, individual scientists, and other science and human rights professionals to participate in presentations and sessions on the topic of the intersection of human rights and the technological applications of science and engineering. 

One workshop featuring three members of Coalition addressed the issue of how scientific societies can become more engaged in human rights. Margaret Vitullo from the American Sociological Association moderated the panel that included Sam McFarland, a SPSSI member, Professor Emeritus at Western Kentucky University, and a Past President of the International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP), Douglas Richardson, Executive Director of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), and Constance Thompson, Senior Manager for Diversity at the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE). 

Douglas Richardson said that AAG have tried to mainstream human rights in their organization. Often associations find that the establishment of special committees leads to issues being sidelined. Many people view human rights as something that can be put into a container rather than integrated into the practice of science and its applications. In order to move towards that latter model, AAG have developed a human rights clearinghouse and a human rights forum. They asked members to pull together research materials that can be used in tribunals with relevant human rights concerns, contributing to a bibliography of some 700 publications. They also try to monitor abuses using geographical tools and then advocate on behalf of the victims. The organization’s ethical statement now has also integrated human rights wording into a new framework. Furthermore, the ongoing work of the association on these fronts is driven by a specialty group on ethics, justice and human rights. As a result of all these changes, Richardson has observed that more people are talking and thinking about human rights within the organization.

Constance Thompson said that the ASCE has as one of its objectives the goal of improving human welfare today and in the future. A human rights framework can be seen in its vision statement and code of ethics. They have tried to help professionals to see the connection between their work and human rights. They officially support the Millennium Development Goals to recognize the importance of human rights in improving human welfare world-wide. More recently, they created a fictional film called Ethicana about corruption and its effect on society. It gives tools to leaders to deal with the problem of corruption. ASCE views the connection to human rights as foundational to civil engineering because its practice always has impacts on the community.

Sam McFarlane said that he encouraged the ISPP to join the Coalition in 2010 when he was its President. They opened up the option of joining to the members, but after review of member feedback, the governing council decided against joining. The reason was they saw the move as being too political and too U.S.-centric. McFarlane reflected on the very real challenges of selling human rights inside and outside our associations. More successfully, in 2011 ISPP actually introduced an amendment to their constitution which incorporated human rights language into the definition of what the Society is and what their goals are. Both the membership and the governing council approved the amendment. This has been a promising change. The next step will be to realize what has been stated in words into the organizational culture.

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator


"The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition is a network of scientific and engineering membership organizations that recognizes a role for science and scientists in efforts to realize human rights. The aim of the Coalition is to facilitate communication and partnerships on human rights within and across the scientific community, and between the scientific and human rights communities." To find out more about how you can involve your organization in human rights work, visit the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition website.


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