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The Right to Science in National Constitutions

The “right to benefit from progress in science and technology” (more commonly referred to as “the right to science”) is one of the earliest internationally recognized human rights. Its origins can be traced to the years immediately following the end of World War II, and in particular to the adoption of the American Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man (April 1948): “Every person has the right to take part in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts, and to participate in the benefits that result from intellectual progress, especially scientific discoveries”. The “right to science” was reworded and incorporated in Article 27.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”), adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1949.

The right found its current, most common formulation, in Article 15.1.b of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which states that: “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone: b. To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications”. Article 15.1.b of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was then copied almost verbatim in the Protocol of San Salvador to the American Convention on Human Rights (Art.14.1.b), the Revised Arab Charter on Human Rights (Art. 42), and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (Art. 32). 

The “right to science” did not propagate only in international legal instruments. Nowadays, a large majority of world constitutions contains one or more of the four components of the right to science: i) the enjoyment of the benefits of scientific progress, ii) the freedom of scientific research; iii) the protection from adverse effects of science, and iv) the duty to foster scientific and technological progress. 

In a recent study we carried out of the 202 currently in force constitutions collected by the Constitute Project, we found that 141 mention some components of the right to science. Of these, 27 include language that repeats almost verbatim Article 15.1.b of the Covenant, where it recognizes the “right to participate and to enjoy the benefits from scientific progress and its applications.” Fifty protect the freedom of scientific research, one of the components of the right to science. The first national constitution to do so was the 1849 Constitution of the German Empire (also known as the Frankfurt Constitution or Constitution of St. Paul’s Church). Article VI, para 152, proclaimed that “science and teaching are free” (Die Wissenschaft und Lehre ist frei). 

Finally, more than a dozen constitutions proclaim the importance of science and technology and commit the State to support research in science and technology. Two even set a target for Research & Development expenditure. Article 164 of the Taiwanese Constitution requires that expenditure for “educational programs, scientific studies and cultural services” accounts for at least 15% of the total expenditure in the Central Government’s budget. Article 23 of the Egyptian Constitution demands an investment in scientific research that is no less than 1% of GDP. 

The widespread incorporation of the right to science and/or its components in national constitutions is remarkable for several reasons. First, as a matter of international law, it is important state practice that suggest that the right to science might have acquired, or is on the way to acquire, customary international law status. Second, as a matter of domestic law, mention in the constitution entrenches the right to science in the national legal system, placing it at the apex of the sources of law. It also enables domestic actors to invoke it before national courts, further helping its development. As we work towards the full realization of the right to science, it is important to remember that it does not exist only at the international level, but also at the national level, thus creating multiple paths for advocates and citizens to invoke it.