Sunday, September 30, 2012

Human rights, science and development spotlight at Sci.Dev

The website is devoted to communicating news and views about science, technology and the developing world. I have used material from their excellent website to blog in the past, particularly their informative section on research ethics. Last week, they published a Spotlight entitled Linking Human Rights, Science and Development, including a number of opinion pieces about the promise of technological development (particularly in medicine, agriculture, and communications) for developing countries.  The main thrust of the articles is that technological advances and investments in the developing world must be informed by/constrained by human rights considerations in order to avoid exploitation of persons and natural resources, to combat research being disproportionally focused on disease affecting the more world's affluent nations, to ensure equitable access to health and health care, to involve more women in science and otherwise combat gender inequity, and to increase benefits of scientific advances for local communities. All of this sounds fine and good, but of course the more you put into the job description of human rights, the more expectations you create, as well as more skepticism: to what extent can human rights really deliver any of this?

I have been in two minds about human rights approaches to anything for quite awhile. On the one hand, human rights approaches can sometimes get positive things done by using the law as a way of forcing reigning powers to change their ways. One can hardly doubt the relevance of human rights discourse in settings plagued by oppression and poverty. On the other hand, ethics has more to it than rights, and bioethics has more to it than human rights. It is important to develop ethical arguments pro and contra practices, trends, and actions even if these arguments are not easily or immediately translatable into law. It is about developing, maintaining and questioning what Simon Blackburn calls the 'ethical climate', using the full vocabulary of ethics: virtues, consequences, obligations, care, compassion, solidarity and so on. Those voices too have to be brought to bear as the developing world is increasingly integrated into the (capitalism-driven) science and technology bandwagon, with all its benefits, seductions and pitfalls.    

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