Scientific integrity: The next battleground for human rights

When we think of human rights, we think of personal freedoms and fundamental protections for our ways of life, including our religion, our political expression, our livelihoods. But what about science? By all accounts, the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress is a stand-alone human right — not to mention the importance of scientific advances in guaranteeing human rights to life, health, adequate food, water and air.

Our ability to conduct and apply groundbreaking science brings us closer to enjoying the human rights to which we are entitled. Which begs the question — why are we willing to stand idly by as scientific integrity is persistently and insidiously attacked before our eyes?

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If you don’t think these attacks are happening, just refer to the latest revelations of how close ties between the Trump administration and industry executives have caused the government to “reconsider” the way that it evaluates the threat of pesticides. And science is losing. Not only is Fish and Wildlife Service not recommending that pesticides chlorpyrifos and malathion be banned, despite scientific evidence suggesting their dangerous impacts on animals and plants, but walk into any hardware store where the glyphosate-based weed-killer, “Roundup,” undoubtedly remains on the shelves, ready for purchase. To this day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to stand by its position that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic.

This determination is directly at odds with the “probably carcinogenic” classification of glyphosate by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It is also at odds with positions of several other countries that have spoken out against glyphosate and adopted measures based on IARC’s scientific findings to protect the health and wellbeing of their populations. 

The EU, France, Italy and Germany have introduced various restrictions on the pesticide’s use, and Switzerland recently launched a referendum aiming to ban the use of synthetic pesticides, including glyphosate. Still, the continued sale of the potentially-carcinogenic glyphosate, trace amounts of which have been found in cereal and oat products consumed by children as well as sampled beer and wine, marks one of the most flagrant examples of scientific repression and corporate manipulation in the United States 

Over the past year, the American public has proven to be not just cognizant of glyphosate’s risks, but decisively ready to take up arms in the ongoing battle. First, in August of 2018, a jury of peers awarded DeWayne Johnson, a former school groundskeeper, $78 million in damages in a landmark decision determining that Monsanto (then-owner of glyphosate-based Roundup) failed to warn Johnson of the health hazards from exposure.  

Then again, a federal jury awarded $80 million in damages to a regular Roundup user, Edwin Hardeman after finding that the popular weed-killer was a “substantial factor” in causing his cancer. Unfortunately, these small, individualized victories will not be enough to win the war against glyphosate-based products.

Prior to the jury’s finding in favor of Hardeman, the presiding federal judge announced a moratorium on discussions about Monsanto’s influence on government regulators and cancer research, threatening sanctions against the plaintiff’s attorney for raising allegations about Monsanto’s undue influence. This move was extraordinary, if not unprecedented. But it was just another example of scientists being silenced for questioning the danger of glyphosate. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently cowered to commercial interests threatening the very right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress that the AAAS claims to advance.

In early February, the AAAS issued a press release, announcing its decision to retract the 2019 AAAS award intended for human health researchers and outspoken critics of glyphosate, Dr. Sarath Gunatilake and Channa Jayasumana, Ph.D., for their work in linking the exposure of glyphosate to a chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) in Sri Lankan farmers. AAAS’ initial decision to name Gunatilake and Jayasumana as the award recipients was not based on a particular scientific discovery, but rather, in recognition of the “death threats and claims of scientific misconduct” that the two researchers had endured while searching for answers. After initially praising the selected award recipients for their “scientific rigor, professional persistence and acceptance of personal risk,” the AAAS announced that it was reassessing the decision. The revocation of the AAAS award, likely due to industry pressures, only adds to the ongoing narrative surrounding glyphosate and the dismissal of those who attempt to speak out against it.

More importantly, these events are part of the greater anti-science atmosphere that is thriving in today’s political arena, especially with respect to climate change. For every new body of scientific evidence confirming the very real impacts of climate change, the Trump administration has double-downed on its denial, seeking to discredit the legitimacy of the underlying science at all costs.

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The White House continues to push its plans to establish presidential panel charged with disproving the conclusion drawn by U.S. military and intelligence agencies: that human-driven climate change poses major risks to national security. The campaign to create this panel along with the likely appointment of a known climate change-denier, William Happer, to lead the panel, was recently compared to one launched by Joseph Stalin by two environmental experts . At the very least, it marks the latest, but certainly not the last, attack on scientific integrity by the Trump administration.

If we value scientific progress and the benefits that science bestows on us all — innovation that supports clean water and air, nutritious and plentiful food, remedies and preventative medicines for disease — then we need to start paying attention to these attacks. We cannot take science for granted and we cannot support the appointment of government officials who are willing to bow to industry pressures at the expense of public and environmental health.  Just because we are entitled to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress does not mean that we can’t lose that right. And without scientific integrity, our human rights are compromised. 

Dr. Hilal Elver is the current United Nations special sapporteur on the right to food, a Global distinguished fellow at the UCLA Law School Resnick Food Law and Policy Center, and research professor at UC Santa Barbara. Follow her on Twitter at @hilalelver.

Melissa Shapiro is a consultant to the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, and former Attorney-advisor with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.