Science: A Human Right for Our Times

April 20, 2021
  • Dunstan Allison-Hope portrait

    Dunstan Allison-Hope

    Senior Advisor, BSR

  • Hannah Darnton portrait

    Hannah Darnton

    Director, Technology and Human Rights, BSR

  • Joanna Lovatt

    Former Manager, BSR

  • Cynthia Wang portrait

    Cynthia Wang

    Manager, Human Rights, BSR

Science is having a moment.

Despite extensive misinformation about COVID-19, vaccines have been developed at an extraordinary speed.

Despite continued skepticism about the science of climate change, new energy technologies are positioned to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.

And despite myths about health impacts, a fifth generation of mobile network technology (5G) will make possible new internet of things and machine-to-machine applications.

Each of these cases demonstrates how significant science is to the role of business in enabling the realization of human rights and how it will likely grow substantially over the decades to come.

There are two key forces shaping the growing importance of the right to science for business:

  • The expanding role of the private sector in all types of scientific research, which includes artificial intelligence, agricultural research, food science, biotechnology, nanotechnology, energy, genetic engineering, and communications technology.
  • The undeniable significance of science in addressing or contributing to global challenges such as climate change, public health, and access to information.

The right to science is found in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out the right to “share in scientific advancement and its benefits,” and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which sets out the right “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.”

However, while these Articles are written for states rather than the private sector, we were struck by the lack of literature exploring the right to science and the role of companies.

Further, while the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) clearly apply to all business activities, the focus of the business and human rights field to date has largely been on business operations and value chain relationships rather than on research and science. In this context, the publication last year of a new General Comment No. 25 on the Right to Science by the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights was a significant development.

For this reason, and using General Comment No. 25 as a foundation, today we are publishing a new BSR primer on the right to science and the role of companies. The BSR primer sets out the following seven priorities for business:

  1. Science should be deployed in the service of the universal enjoyment of human rights.
  2. The right to science applies to everyone.
  3. Human rights due diligence should be undertaken on research, including whether research should be undertaken in the first place.
  4. Companies need diverse research teams and relationships.
  5. Companies should provide the public with accessible information concerning the risks and benefits of science and technology so that informed decisions can be made.
  6. Companies should deploy approaches based on informed consent.  
  7. The right to science has limits, especially when it may be deployed or misused for nefarious purposes.

These seven priorities will become important as new dilemmas about science emerge over time. For example: 

  • When is it right to abandon research priorities on account of potential future harms arising from use of the research, even if the same research has the potential to bring benefits too? If the research continues, what are the right mitigation measures to address potential future harms?
  • How should responsibility for addressing adverse human rights impacts be distributed between the entity undertaking the research and the entity using it?
  • What responsibility do scientists have to explore the human rights risks and benefits of their research?
  • How much research should be published openly in the public domain when there is risk that the research may be abused to cause harm?
  • What incentive structures will both respect the material interests of the author and spread the benefits of scientific research?

These are not easy questions, and we believe they will benefit from further exploration, debate, and dialogue using both the spirit and the letter of the UNGPs.

The right to science is a right for our times. We hope that our new primer becomes the basis of exploring in more depth how this right can be respected, protected, realized, fulfilled, and enjoyed.


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