Human rights and science: Or how to think out of the box if it’s sealed?

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By Yoran Beldengrün, Gabriela Blatter, Johann Roduit and Anna Deréky – Research collaborations do not only ease advancement of science due to sharing of know-how and facilities; they are also an important political soft power. But politics is never easy. Especially not with countries that do not view human rights as important!

Archimedes could have shouted Eureka in Somalia, an apple could have fallen on Newton’s head in China and Einstein could have discovered the relativity theory next to a nice beach in North Korea. Scientific phenomena are not bound to specific regions, cultures or political systems. They do not know borders.

How about research? Should we set borders to research collaborations? Is it right for a Swiss research institution to collaborate with research institutes that do not view human rights as important?

Many global challenges, such as climate change, increasing health costs, global resource management, and sustainable economies depend strongly on the advancement of scientific research and can only be solved through global collaborations. Switzerland is one of the leading science and research hubs in the world. Swiss institutions and researchers collaborate all over the world. To foster this, the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) has published an international strategy on a targeted promotion of research collaborations around the world, covering Europe, North America, but also emerging economies and developing countries.

This leading role in research offers opportunities but also risks for Switzerland and its researchers. Research collaborations with partners who do not accept human rights, entail ethical challenges, especially regarding important rights such as freedom of opinion and communication or protection of intellectual property. It is difficult to think solely of science, without taking into consideration some political implications, if a student from a fragile state or a dictatorship wishes to do a PhD in Nuclear Energy at the EPFL, if the University of Berne wishes to open a Centre of gender studies in Saudi Arabia or if a research group wishes to explore the geologic composition of North Korean’s soles.

Organisations like the Swiss Academy of Science offer some guidelines for international research partnerships. But are those enough? How can they be used by institutions, different disciplines or individual researchers?

Science: A country’s soft power!

In some countries, such as China, many researchers are subject to a political system, which supposedly limits their academic freedom. Even though crucial for their research, basic human rights, like the freedom of speech, may not always be guaranteed. It is as if they were asked on a daily basis to be creative and to think out of the box, with a box that remains sealed. This is why Swiss researchers should get more engaged with, for example, Chinese colleagues and provide them with the necessary information and creative space through collaboration to think out of the box, even though their box is sealed by their superiors and by China’s political system.

Science is a country’s soft power, which enables a ‘neutral’ political space for international relations and builds up trust. What seems like simple research collaborations can have a much bigger impact on the political scale and be beneficial for the society.

Figure 1: Science collaborations between Switzerland and countries having a different understanding of human rights. This chemical reaction still needs better clarification (authors‘ own graphics).

Use this soft power cautiously!

However next to a difficult human rights situation and limited academic freedom such countries, as China, are known to have inadequate ethical regulations in many scientific fields, such as in biomedical research. The common understanding of animal testing, DNA sampling and alike, is fundamentally different from the understanding in Switzerland or elsewhere in Europe. Swiss scientists may thus take advantage from such collaborations, as they could access data, which (due to regulations) they could not otherwise. Thus not only could a Swiss scientist help to advance human rights and political conditions, but also profit from less restricting research regulations. Perfect win-win situation! Perfect win-win situation? Is this behaviour 100 % ethically defendable? Scientists aren’t the only ones profiting from differing legal systems abroad. Foreigners allocate money to Switzerland due to fiscal benefits, people smoke joints in Amsterdam or young couples quickly hop to Las Vegas to marry. The Swiss state can’t control who leaves the country to benefit from a service which the person can’t get under the Swiss legal framework. Thus it also cannot control which research collaboration should be fostered or not. It’s more the role of the international community or of any organization with the necessary power to sensitize and put political pressure on the countries which have immoral laws, or in our case, unethical regulations in research.

Meanwhile, protecting and guiding scientists during their work with scientists and research institutions from ethically challenging countries should gain higher importance on the political agenda. Science is an important soft power which has to be fostered.  To solidify and improve existing guidelines and to increase awareness is therefore crucial.

Switzerland has already an organisation which guides scientists during their research partnerships with developing countries: the KFPE (Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries). Enlarging this commission or creating a new one for above mentioned purpose may be an option. Experts on political, ethical and legal systems of countries in question will provide to scientists clarification about their rights during their work in different environments. Yes, it will add an additional player into the institutional landscape of Switzerland, but a valuable one.

Science does not know borders! Who knows how long the borders of research collaborations will still hold?

Yoran Beldengrün, Gabriela Blatter, Johann Roduit and Anna Deréky are members of the Science Diplomacy group of foraus. The Science Diplomacy group of foraus is about to start a discussion paper to address these issues and provide better guidance for Swiss research institutions and their scientists. If you are interested in international science collaboration, science policy, and human rights implementation or alike, we are happy to meet you and get your input and thoughts about it. We are still looking for additional authors. In case of interest please contact Yoran Beldengrün yoranb@student.ethz.ch.

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